On a dreary Sunday afternoon in Olde City Philadelphia recently, a throng of kids took their parents to the Arden Theatre, where they all patiently waited outside the doors for the fire company to clear the building after the alarm system accidentally went off. And why were these kids so patient on a day when they could have been warm at home playing video games, you ask? Because of Whit MacLaughlin's new production of "Cinderella," of course.
MacLaughlin, artistic director of the very adult New Paradise Laboratories (his "27" was one of the breakout hits of this year's LiveArts Festival), doesn't skimp on theatrical inventive with magical realism when he directs children's plays at the Arden. His previous hits include "Year of Frog and Toad" and last year's "Charlotte's Web."
Typical for MacLaughlin, this show relates to perceptive young theatergoers and Cinderella, in this poignant adaptation by Charles Way, is a wise, you can even say feminist update. This is no hapless lass who suffers bullying stepsisters without a fight. Meanwhile, the fairy godmother does appear but Cinderella has her doubts about her, too.
Cinderella's mother died and a year later she is still grieving and trying to stay bonded to her increasingly distant father, a clock-maker, who has decided to remarry. This not only freaks her out, she must tolerate a icy stepmother and those annoying teen-stepsisters, who in fact, now occupy her bedroom. She doesn't put up with their nastiness without a fight.
Cinderella is banished to the kitchen, but she does not go crying over the sink, she meditates in her mother's garden. Later, she cautiously befriends a servant from the nearby palace, who has been hanging around her garden. He is fact is smitten, but she is feeling stalked and pestered by this guy.
Meanwhile back at the palace, Prince Sebastian starts to push back at his dad, the king, who won't get out of bed or take a bath. The Prince's best pal, Wolfgang, aka court composer, arranges the ball.
Mary Tuomanen is a wonderfully willful Cinderella, in an altogether tender, magically real performance. It was not just because she was in a beautiful dress that the kids applauded her on the way to the ball.
Understudy Andrew Carroll handily stepped in at the last minute for this performance as the Prince Sebastian. Toumanen and Carroll conjured believable chemistry from the start. It must have been unnerving for Carroll to not only do two shows the same day, but also have one delayed.
Kala Moses Baxter as Fairy Godmother/Bird is sing-songy warmth and humor. Susan Riley Stevens and Miriam White are the beautifully manical, goofy, nasty stepsisters.
MacLaughlin incorporates elements of physical theater and delightfully daffy physical comedy. With his maestro-divo blond hair and L.A. shades, Matteo Scammell is a rock star as Wolfgang, whether he is dueling with his baton or conducting "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." Benjamin Lloyd's King Leopold sounded, hilariously, like a hammy James Mason much of the time, not to mention those bed-jumping antics.
David Gordon's production design is a gorgeous, exposed-beam wood proscenium and spiral staircases crowned with clockwork gears, with beaux-arts light shells downstage. The video and light designs flawlessly integrate the projections on modular room panels on the skirt stage. Bravo also to Rosemarie E. McKelvey's costume design, especially that gaga neo-couture black ball gown and marquisite slippers.