Rodgers + Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’ with heart and grace from Upper Room Theatre Ministry

The talented cast and memorable musical numbers create a magical experience that audiences of all ages will cherish.

Upper Room Theatre Ministry’s production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a bright and enchanting experience for all ages. Audiences will enjoy the classic songs of the original musical while hearing additional songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog. The updated book by Douglas Carter Beane also includes moral lessons within the story with themes of kindness, forgiveness, equality, and belief in the power of dreams.

Director Rob Tessier brings the tale to life through innovative visual effects and beautiful storytelling. Music Director and Conductor Chris Zavadowski led the talented musicians and world-class performers through the lush orchestrations. The cherry on top of the production is the graceful and energetic choreography from Marianna Constable — especially in the numbers “Ten Minutes Ago” and “The Prince Is Giving a Ball.”

Alicia Smith (Marie), Maggie Saffian (Cinderella), Isabella Mancini (Coachman), and Orla Haggerty (Mouseman) in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella.’ Photo by Rich Zavadowski.

The stage configuration is a departure from previous award-winning Upper Room productions. Rather than a traditional staging, this show takes place in the round with the orchestra lit behind a scrim. Tessier’s blocking ensures that every seat is able to witness the magic of the story. A circular platform in the center of the theater was painted like an ornate clock and acted as a foundation for many visually stunning moments. Above it hangs a circular forest-like piece that serves as a proscenium and dramatic staging element. From the center, a roofline is lowered for scenes that take place in the cottage. Various modular set pieces and frames are used to great effect in the interior scenes, helping the audience distinguish the different settings and allowing for seamless transitions. The most impressive visual elements of the show are the large-scale dragon puppet, life-sized horses, and impressive carriage. The overall design of the carriage in particular is adapted to the in-the-round experience, giving the framework of a carriage without obstructing the performers. Kudos to the design, construction, and stage crew on the many successful elements!

Maggie Saffian is perfectly lovely in the role of Ella. Her singing has a beautiful bell-tone quality that soars through the beloved songs, bringing new life to the well-known melodies. Saffian has a natural warmth in her depiction that it’s no wonder Prince Topher immediately falls in love. Timothy Burhouse as Prince Topher is both charming and sincere with a wonderful singing voice that can make any heart swoon. The Prince’s character is a slight departure from the original musical, with this version giving more depth and opportunities for growth as he goes from dragon slayer to benevolent leader.

The Fairy Godmother Marie (Alicia Smith) first appears as a local beggar woman to whom Ella shows kindness and charity. Smith joins Saffian in the song “Impossible,” which sets the stage for several wonderful transformations you’ll have to see to believe. My favorite moments occur with Mary Ellen Underwood and Isabella Mancini as the Fox and Raccoon respectively as they became the footman and driver, and later when returning to their tree stumps. Their moments are a playful combination of puppetry, acrobatic dance, and fight choreography that is giggle-inducing and impressive.

Top: Mary Ellen Underwood (Fox) and Maggie Saffian (Cinderella); bottom: the Ensemble in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella.’ Photos by Rich Zavadowski.

Cinderella’s stepfamily includes Madame (Renee De Ponte), Charlotte (Rachel Edwards), and Gabrielle (Caitlin Lohfeld). De Ponte and Edwards as the cruel Step Mother and Step Sister are a dastardly duo, tormenting Ella at every turn. Lohfeld as the kinder sister Gabrielle befriends Ella and tries to help her when she can. The four ladies have a delightful quartet in “A Lovely Night” that is vocally splendid with contagiously joyful choreography. I also enjoyed the updated version of “Stepsister’s Lament” led by Rachel Edwards with a dozen disgruntled maidens, lamenting their lost chance at love.

The biggest difference between this updated version and its predecessors is the removal of the King and Queen and the addition of characters Jean-Michel (Daniel Ferguson) and Sebastian (Joshua Ewalt). Jean-Michel is a lower-class local who leads a revolution in the kingdom. Sebastian is the royal advisor and takes advantage of the Prince’s naivete to secure more riches for the royal court. The two characters are an effective contrast to one another and their involvement creates an interesting drive to the plot. Ferguson and Ewalt are gifted singers who can also be seen as featured dancers in the ballroom sequence. Another strong performance comes from Lord Pinkleton, played by Billy Valentine. Lord Pinkleton acts as a town crier and uses his strong tenor vocals to lead “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” also featuring Jean-Michel and the ensemble.

What truly stands out in this production for me is the ensemble. These singers, dancers, and movers are the backbone of the show, providing exquisite vocals and banter while moving pieces seamlessly between scenes. The updated orchestrations are especially gorgeous when the ensemble adds their superb blending and delicious diction.

Upper Room Theatre Ministry’s production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella captures the essence of this classic tale with heart and grace. The talented cast, exquisite use of space, and memorable musical numbers create a magical experience that audiences of all ages will cherish.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella plays through July 23, 2023, presented by Upper Room Theatre Ministry performing at All Saints Catholic Church, 9310 Stonewall Road, Manassas, VA. Purchase tickets ($17–$80) online.


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