Eight years before Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein famously collaborated on screen with Dame Julie Andrews in ‘The Sound of Music’, she starred in a 1957 musical version of ‘Cinderella’ written by the iconic duo specifically for US television. It was a smash hit, during the broadcast the streets of New York were reportedly deserted as around 107 million people tuned in to watch, garnering both critical and public acclaim. Fast forward 65 years and we find another pair of estimable creatives, William Whelton and Joseph Houston the driving forces behind Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, have sprinkled their special brand of fairy dust over the piece, giving us a pre-Christmas treat to brighten a bleak November night.
The time honoured story of Cinderella has many variations and can range from the saccharine to the savage depending on the storyteller. What we are offered tonight is the European premiere of the 2013 Broadway production, the original Hammerstein book being significantly rewritten by Douglas Carter Beane and allowing additional characters and changes to fill out the original simple storyline. So, in addition to Ella (Grace Mouat) suffering cruelly at the hands of Madame (Annie Aitken) and her two daughters Charlotte (Katie Ramshaw) and Gabrielle (Olivia- Faith Kamau), before Fairy Godmother (Julie Yammanee) conjures her happy ever after, a number of more modern sub plots are engineered into the storyline.
We meet Topher (Jacob Fowler) as a more earnest 21st Century Prince Charming, caring and angst ridden when he discovers the wicked plots of his scheming chief courtier Sebastian (Lee Ormsby). Additional social commentary is provided by the revolutionary Jean Michel (Adam Filipe), dressed for the ‘Les Miserables’ barricades and spouting democratic slogans whilst simultaneously managing to fall in love with Gabrielle.
These supporting characters are well fleshed out by the cast, providing most of the humour that is present in the show. Ramshaw is particularly eye catching in this regard, hilariously hyperbolic both in delivery and song (Stepsisters’ Lament) and meshes well with Aitken, her own version of Madame channelling a ‘Sunset Boulevard/Norma Desmond’ vibe.
Thankfully however, this is as far from both pantomime or dreary realism as its possible to get, with the illustrious names of Rodgers and Hammerstein above the title, as you would expect it is the musicality that is the strength of this show. Cinderella meets Broadway in spectacular fashion and the spectacle explodes from the confines of Hope Mill. Mouat is superb in the title role, warm and engaging with a sensational vocal that is especially evident in such an intimate theatrical space (Impossible/Possible). She allows you to believe ‘kindness has the power to transform anything’ and provides the moral compass and loudly beating heart of the production.
As a directorial team Houston and Whelton have provided an elegant feast for the senses. I am continually amazed by Whelton’s ability to render such complex and intricate choreography so successfully on such a small stage (The Prince is Giving a Ball). When paired with the set and costume design (Elly Wdowski) and the shimmering light projections by George Reeve, the production showcases the best effects I have seen at this theatre since its opening. If I had one quibble it would be that there may be one too many ballads after the interval, as a slender storyline is stretched to breaking point, however, as that meant hearing Mouat and Fowler in gorgeous duet again (Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?), you will not hear me complain too loudly.
Overall, this is a sumptuous production bringing golden age Broadway music and dance to the forefront of a classic tale, utilising stunning technical effects and a superb cast at the top of their game.
Hope Mill may be small but once again they are punching well above their weight. A pre-Christmas cracker to ease us into the festive season.
Playing until 11th December, https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/cinderella
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 17th November 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★