Andrew Lloyd Webber Pushes Cinderella Into the 21st Century

The title character in the British composer’s ‘Bad Cinderella’ is a self-described loner, rebel, and ‘freak’ who rejects the harsh standards of beauty imposed in the kingdom of Belleville.

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Linedy Genao in ‘Bad Cinderella.’ Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Once upon a time, there was a British composer who found huge success spinning self-serious musicals out of subjects ranging from biblical figures to cats with highbrow literary origins. As he got older, the composer seemed to develop more of a sense of humor and whimsy, drawing inspiration from P.G. Wodehouse and even Jack Black.

One could speculate that had Andrew Lloyd Webber thought of adapting a certain fairy tale three or four decades ago, the result would have been something akin in tone to “The Phantom of the Opera,” with a swooning heroine only gliding into her glass slipper after enduring two acts of melodrama. Instead, Broadway now has the sharp, shiny bauble that is “Bad Cinderella” — introduced on the West End two years ago as simply “Cinderella,” then renamed to distinguish it from more established adaptations of the folk tale.

Certainly, no one could confuse the show that Mr. Lloyd Webber has constructed with lyricist David Zippel and book writers Emerald Fennell and Alexis Scheer with Walt Disney’s “Cinderella,” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, or that of the Brothers Grimm, for that matter. In this decidedly 21st-century take, Cinderella is a self-described loner, rebel, and “freak” who rejects the harsh standards of beauty imposed in the kingdom of Belleville, where all the gals are babes, all the guys are buff, and no one can tell how old the queen is.

Played by sassy newcomer Linedy Genao, this Cinderella paces around in a bulky cloak and leggings that, while colorful by goth standards, contrast markedly with the form-fitting, fluorescent fashions scenic and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova has provided the other young women, who spill out onto the stage like pieces of tropical fruit candy. Cinderella has an edge: Her frank manner and mischievous nature have endeared her to Prince Charming’s timid kid brother, Prince Sebastian — played here by a sweet but sly Jordan Dobson — who, with his elder sibling presumed dead after taking on a dragon, stands to inherit the throne.

A composer whose previous heroines have included fainting ingénues and shrill alpha females may not seem like the likeliest person to put a feminist slant on a centuries-old account of love and virtue. But Mr. Lloyd Webber has been wise in choosing his collaborators: Ms. Fennell, who wrote the original story and libretto, and Ms. Scheer, who contributed new material, have both won praise surveying precocious young women and the traps that can ensnare them. Flashes of their bracing, pull-no-punches wit — if not the thrilling suspense that informed, for instance, Ms. Fennell’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “Promising Young Woman,” or Ms. Scheer’s acclaimed play “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” — are in evidence here.

Some of the most biting lines, and the naughtiest, actually go to more seasoned actresses, notable among them the redoubtable Carolee Carmello, who proves a deliciously vampy villainess as Cinderella’s stepmother. Threatening to kick the oppressed and now orphaned protagonist out of their home, she tells her, “I’m sure there are brothels that cater to blind men.” Later, when her daughters protest that they’re not attracted to Sebastian, she assures them, “You don’t have to look at the champagne bottle while you’re popping the cork.”

Grace McLean’s preening, tightly wound queen is the stepmother’s rival and her equal in vanity; the two have a vocal catfight in the winking duet “I Know You,” while in the production number “Man’s Man,” the queen romps with her hunky male subjects while remembering her missing son with rather too much enthusiasm. There’s also an alluring but disturbing fairy godmother, played by an elegant Christina Acosta Robinson, whose long-term makeover plans for Cinderella seem to involve plastic surgery.

If these characters — not to mention Cinderella’s stepsisters, made especially vapid in deft comic performances by Sami Gayle and Morgan Higgins — underline the challenges that independent-minded women can face even from their peers, “Bad Cinderella” strives to deliver an empowering message with a modern twist. The message is that all people, from royalty to the low-born, should be able to live and love however they choose; the twist is reinforced by a surprise ending, in which the queen shows herself to be less narrow-minded than we might have expected.

Mostly, though, “Bad Cinderella” delivers as a tonic, fueled by Mr. Lloyd Webber’s diverting-enough score — infused, predictably, with rock bombast and a couple of earworm melodies — and brisk, sometimes bawdy comedy, with the latter particularly well served by the cast. For this 75-year-old musical theater veteran’s latest creative journey, it’s as happy an ending as anyone could have expected. 


The New York Sun

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