There are hundreds of variations of the romantic fairy tale “Cinderella,” the story of a girl who is mistreated by her stepmother, saved by her fairy godmother and lived happily ever after with a prince.
Well, 345 variations in Europe alone and from predominantly male authors, if you trust a 19th century anthology that traced the story’s lineage from the work of Charles Perrault in 1697 to that of the Grimm Brothers in 1812. Add to the mix the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Walt Disney and so many other modern Americans.
In 1997, the story was given a make-over aimed at pre-teenage girls by novelist Gail Carson Levine. Her “Ella Enchanted” featured an intelligent, free-spirited young heroine who was given the gift of obedience by a foolish fairy unaware of the consequences, and who managed through her wit and will to free herself from its effects and her step-family’s torment.
The novel inspired a 2004 live-action film of the same name that seemed similarly inspired by “The Princess Bride,” “A Knight’s Tale” and other films taking place in a medieval time but infused with modern-day sensibilities, current references, and a contemporary sense of humor.
The film, in turn, inspired Karen Zacarías and Deborah Wicks La Puma to pen a new musical version of “Ella Enchanted,” which is a very mediocre work being given an absolutely amazing staging by Dobama Theatre.
The musical, like the film, offers a predictable story told through a plodding script as relayed by a slew of one-dimensional characters hamstrung by the limitations of the fairy tale genre and the work’s creators. It places goofy antics over theater art, coupled with an unmemorable and uninspiring score.
And yet this production soars due to director Nathan Motta’s fairy godmother-like conjuring of a grander artistic vision, a magical cast and a miraculous production team.
While the film’s $30 million budget offered an abundance of CGI, none of it is as enchanting as scenic designer Douglas Puskas’ construction of a charming stone bridge at center stage whose archway doubles as Ella’s hearth, Marcus Dana’s lighting that adds immense drama and dimension to the play’s proceedings, T. Paul Lowry’s animated images of big skies and sweeping landscapes that are projected on a rear screen and other imagery projected on the proscenium, and Jeremy Dobbins’ marvelous soundscape that underscores and humorously accents the onstage activity. Every performer and stagehand is adorned in costumer Colleen Bloom’s fairy tale fare.
Collectively, these designers transport the audience to an inviting and enchanting world set for storytelling.
In the film “Ella Enchanted,” actress Anne Hathaway as the titular character muddles through as best she can considering the inanity she is asked to perform by the screenwriters. Natalie Green in the role is absolutely charming and breaks free of the caricature she’s been handed. While the script lacks heart and soul, Green supplies them in spades with acting marked by its authenticity and vocals that make her songs better than they are on the page. The score is performed by a small but stellar corps of musicians under Jordan Cooper’s direction.
Tina Stump as the careless fairy godmother, Amy Fritsche as the evil stepmother, Eugene Sumlin as Ella’s weak father, Kelly Elizabeth Smith as the mean step-sister, Neely Gevaart as the stupid step-sister, and Joshua McElroy as the endearing Prince push and tug at their characters' defining characteristic to generate humorous, engaging and rich performances. The acting is imbued with brilliant touches of innovation (look for Fritsche’s roaming beauty marks) and improvisation (listen for Gevaart’s clever asides). Ensemble members Arif Silverman and Madeline Krucek, who take on a variety of small and potentially inconsequential roles, turn everything they do into something interesting that adds a layer of pleasure to this production.
Additional characters, such as giants and other mythical beings, are created through Robin VanLear’s delightful puppetry. Motta seamlessly weaves these creations into the fabric of this production as if they were cast members.
In the cinematic Disney version of “Cinderella,” it’s possible for a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden carriage and a plain country bumpkin and a prince to join in marriage. But the true bibbidi-bobbidi-boo to be found in Dobama’s rendition is the turning of something middling into something magical.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.