At the end of Act 1 on opening night of the star-crossed “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,’’ in the scene where Cinderella (Kaitlyn Mayse) flees the prince as the clock approaches midnight, Mayse ran offstage at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, just like she was supposed to.
The next guy she encountered was not a prince. There backstage, plainly visible to much of the audience through a large opening in a piece of scenery on the left side of the stage, stood a burly stagehand in a black T-shirt, his expression impassive as Mayse walked past him.
So much for what was meant to be a climactic scene. So much for the willing suspension of disbelief that is vital for theatergoers to enter, and remain in, an imaginary world. So much for the seamless stage magic that “Cinderella’’ in particular depends upon — the kind of magic that elevated the Broadway production beyond the inherent flaws of this modernized version of the 1957 musical.
Lest you think I’m making too much of a single moment or faulting that stagehand — who, after all, was simply doing his job — you should know that the entire performance of “Cinderella’’ was marred by such moments. I’m not referring to the brief glimpses of offstage activity that can occur during scene changes in any production. Nor, for that matter, am I referring to the intermittently spotty microphones that swallowed some performers’ words during “Cinderella,’’ the less-than-dextrous costume transformation when Cinderella’s plain dress was replaced by a glamorous gown, or the mishap during the final wedding scene when a bouquet of flowers held overhead by a soldier plummeted to the stage.
What I’m talking about is a competing offstage show at “Cinderella’’ that constantly crowded into one’s peripheral vision: costumed actors (such as Joanna Johnson, who is quite amusing as Charlotte, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters) huddled by the curtain, waiting for their cues to go back onstage; stagehands preparing to redeploy Cinderella’s carriage, which loomed like a large, abandoned bauble; a backstage door beneath a red Exit sign being opened and closed.
All in all, I’ve never seen a production with so many offstage distractions. Have you ever watched an old movie and suddenly noticed a stray boom mic poking into the frame? Picture trying to block out that kind of visual intrusion for the entire movie.
OK, this obviously is a fixable problem, and one assumes the scenery at “Cinderella’’ will be adjusted so the audience can devote full and undivided attention to the show they paid up to $150 per ticket to see. What about the production itself? Though I obviously cannot speak for the youngsters who are a primary part of the show’s target audience, I’d say this “Cinderella’’ is pleasant enough but far from transporting.
Rodgers & Hammerstein gift-wrapped some of their loveliest songs for any cast performing “Cinderella,’’ which premiered in 1957 as a live TV special starring Julie Andrews, but somehow didn’t receive a Broadway production until five years ago, starring Laura Osnes. What has arrived at the Colonial is the touring version of that 2013 production, originally directed by Mark Brokaw and helmed on the road by Gina Rattan.
As Cinderella, Mayse is an appealing, clear-voiced performer, and she exudes a quiet glow in the solo “In My Own Little Corner’’ while also doing a fine job in a pair of duets: “Impossible,’’ with Zina Ellis, an elegant singer who plays Marie, a.k.a. the Fairy Godmother; and “Ten Minutes Ago,’’ with Lukas James Miller, as Prince Topher. (In vintage Rodgers & Hammerstein style, the score’s most insistently hummable songs — “A Lovely Night,’’ “Ten Minutes Ago,’’ “In My Own Little Corner’’ — are reprised.) Miller needs to project more force of personality, though he is perhaps hobbled by the fact that scriptwriter Douglas Carter Beane gave the prince more nuances than a cardboard character like Topher can handle.
Hammerstein’s original book was jettisoned in favor of Beane’s new script. Alternating between snarky attitude and earnest political themes, it doesn’t work on either level.
Politically, this Cinderella is oh-so-woke; her goal is not just to capture the prince’s heart but also to focus the oblivious ruler’s attention on the social injustices being perpetrated in his kingdom by his right-hand man, Sebastian (Christopher Swan). Loudly inveighing against these injustices is a new character created by Beane: the screeching, gratingly unfunny Jean-Michel (Nic Casaula), who when not hectoring the masses spends his time wooing Cinderella’s stepsister Gabrielle (Natalie Girard).
Meanwhile, Beane’s contemporized, smart-aleck dialogue (“Well, is marriage still on the table?’’ Cinderella asks Prince Topher with transactional briskness at one point) is so at odds with the fundamentally swoony sensibility of the R&H songs that it gives the musical a split personality and keeps us at arm’s-length from the story.
We don’t feel the full weight of anguish when Cinderella is tormented by her evil stepmother (played by Sarah Smith with not-quite-enough fiendishness), and we don’t feel emotionally invested in the obstacle-strewn romance between prince and peasant girl. Because the production’s default reflex is a shrug, it runs the risk we will react in the same fashion when that glass slipper finally turns out to fit Cinderella.
RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA
Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. New book by Douglas Carter Beane. Original book by Hammerstein. Directed by Gina Rattan. Originally directed by Mark Brokaw. Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group at Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 30. Tickets $39.50-$149.50, 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.co m
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.