Monday, March 4, 2013

Theater Roundup: Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" on Broadway; Sondheim's "Passion" off-Broadway

Music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein; directed by Mark Brokaw
Performances began January 25, 2013
Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway @ 53rd Street, New York, NY

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; directed and designed by John Doyle
Performances through April 7, 2013
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Laura Osnes in Cinderella (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Originally written as a TV musical with Julie Andrews in 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella comes to Broadway an ungainly hybrid: wedded awkwardly to the pair’s elegantly tuneful—if often forgettable—songs is a new book by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, whose smartass cleverness is at odds with the beloved fairy tale.

The schizophrenia probably won’t have much effect at the box office—parents who take their kids will laugh at the jokes that go over the youngsters’ heads—but why did this marriage take place in the first place? Why tamper with a surefire hit property by the most beloved songwriters in Broadway history?

Beane scores occasional laughs with anachronisms and snark, but his additions (especially his silly political and social commentary) drag down the second act. Mark Brokaw’s snappy direction, while overcoming Josh Rhodes’ routine choreography, has trouble with Beane’s sloppy dramaturgy, but he’s helped immensely by William Ivey Long’s magical costumes and Anna Louizos’s elaborate sets.

The cast comprises scenery-chewing stage veterans like Harriet Harris as the Evil Stepmother and Robert Bartlett as the prince’s hypocritical guardian Sebastian: but they gleefully toss off Beane’s bitchiest lines. Victoria Clark is an immaculate fairy godmother and Santino Fontana a goofily endearing prince—who only lacks panache.

Then there’s the incandescent Laura Osnes, rapidly becoming our best Broadway leading lady. Lovely of voice, presence, demeanor and affect, her delightfully unaffected singing and acting make her a Cinderella for all ages, even if the show ultimately is not.

Silverman, Errico and Kuhn in Passion (photo by Joan Marcus)

In theory, Steven Sondheim’s intimate Passion would be well served by the off-Broadway Classic Stage Company’s tiny space. Too bad that, in the hands of director John Doyle, it’s more gimmicky than organic, a failed opportunity to home in on this master composer’s least typical musical theater piece.

Based on Italian director Ettole Scola’s 1981 film Passione d’amore, Sondheim’s musical is essentially a chamber piece for an unorthodox ménage a trois: Giorgio, a dashing soldier in a passionate affair with the beautiful—but married—Clara, finds himself inexplicably drawn to Fosca, the sickly cousin of his new sergeant. Sondheim and book writer James Lapine alternate between Giorgio and Clara’s loving letters with scenes showing how he slowly falls for the physically repulsive and emotionally frail woman.

Sondheim’s music, which apes Puccini without ever reaching the necessary, ahem, passion, aurally spins its wheels for 105 minutes: there’s not only a paucity of memorable tunes, but a paucity of tunes themselves; much of Passion takes place in a no-man’s land in which the similar-sounding musical motifs repeat with unsatisfying variations.

If Sondheim’s music is dispassionate, Doyle’s directing is anemic. The small stage’s intimacy should bring us closer to this strange romantic trio, but Doyle—unlike his earlier Sondheim successes d’estime of performers playing their instruments in Sweeney Todd and Company—does nothing original here, reverting to minimal scenery have characters mime eating to increasing risible effect.

In the leads, Melissa Errico (Clara) and Ryan Silverman (Giorgio) are commendable and Judy Kuhn (Fosca) is even better—her plainness as scarily effective as Donna Murphy’s repulsiveness in the original Broadway staging—but it’s all ultimately for naught.

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