Are you hoping for a live-theater holiday family outing that isn’t some iteration of A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker? Bring your loved ones out to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Baltimore Center Stage. This lushly detailed production is designed to amuse all ages and is so visually splendid from start to finish that dazzling barely begins to describe it.
There are hundreds of versions of the tale of Cinderella: an ancient Greek one in which an eagle drops a stolen shoe in the lap of a Pharaoh, Swedish ones that describe foot mutilation, Asian ones, which often include a magical fish, a Russian one featuring the detail of a slipper trimmed in squirrel fur, and a German one wherein our protagonist plants a tree commemorating her mother and waters it with her sorrowful tears. In 1697, French author Charles Perrault, rather than choosing “vair,” the word for squirrel fur, uses instead the homophone “verre,” glass. This imagery grabbed the collective imagination of the English-speaking world, so Cinderella’s slipper is glass. What the slipper’s made of, however, isn’t really the point of the story. The descriptors of Cinderella as “beautiful” and her stepsisters as “ugly” is or has become shorthand for “good qualities” and “unpleasant behaviors.” That unpleasant, self-serving behaviors frequently overpower and subjugate those of basic goodness is evidently not at all a recent development.
Rodgers and Hammerstein, writing for a television special in 1957, tell the tale of a sweet-tempered girl displaced from her family position and potential inheritance. While Disney’s 1950 musical animation of a mouse-enabled, sweet-voiced young woman eclipsed by rasping, awkward sisters, delivers wonderful songs but a milquetoast heroine and a personality-deficient suitor, R&H give us a situationally challenged heroine traumatized by grief but still convinced of decency in humanity and hopeful for her own outcome.
So the show remained for 40 years, until Whitney Houston, over the course of enough years to age out of the Cinderella role, finally was greenlit for an updated, multiracial version of the story, teleplay by Robert L. Freedman, incorporating additional songs from the R&H oeuvre, produced and broadcast on ABC. That teleplay was adapted into an alternate stage show of Cinderella, which debuted on Broadway in 2013 and is now known as “the Enchanted version.”
Center Stage embraces the next logical step and presents for the enjoyment of Baltimore audiences an ArtsCentric all-Black cast of the Enchanted version of R&H’s Cinderella. ArtsCentric is a Baltimore-based African-American performing arts organization, headed by Cinderella’s director, Kevin S. McAllister.
McAllister’s vision of the story takes us to Africa. The Prologue and its splendid narrator introduce the commemorative tree of the German folktale, which explains a dove, operated by Angelo Harrington II, who frequents the set and is instrumental in sending Cinderella to the ball. Costume Designer Larry Boggs immediately mesmerizes us with gorgeous African prints sewn into djellabas, dashikis, jumpsuits, and gowns of all shapes in the Prologue, again in the opening meet-cute market scene, all the way to the joyful wedding dance that closes the show.
Choreographers Shalyce Hemby and Peri Ellis give Alvin Ailey and African dance moves to a dance-talented cast, who execute them with such gusto and glee that the opening sequence is rewarded with a long burst of applause. The live band, conducted by Music Director Cedric D. Lyles, hidden behind an intricately painted scrim, adds African rhythms and drums to the R&H score. We meet the Ensemble as market vendors, and there are a variety of physicalities represented, all of them beautiful.
Presently, Grace and Joy, those inaptly named comedic stepsisters, enter with their mother and Cinderella. I am fascinated with the accessories — that purse! — and the elaborate hats and hairdos. None of their eye-searing outfits, however, eclipses the slapstick genius executed scene after scene by Malshauna Hamm as Joy and Nikki Owens as Grace, to the audible delight of the many children in the audience.
Cinderella and Prince Christopher sing “The Sweetest Sounds” (from No Strings), wherein Towson student Jaiden Nuako and local performer Nick Moore display their very excellent voices. The sound balance between musicians and vocalists, however, is often unfortunately tipped in favor of the band, so making out the lyrics can be challenging.
Tyrell Stanley as the Palace Proclaimer (“The Prince Is Giving a Ball”) is fascinating and emotive in each of his scenes — officious, understanding, obedient, terrified — and looks resplendent in his wonderful suits. Please pay attention to his shoes. As Stepmother, Kenyatta V. Hardison brings a highly nuanced presence regarding her own daughters — a mixture of realistic thinking, pride of place, ambition, exasperation, and irritation. When interacting with Cinderella, she is arch and haughty, her posture and carriage lending extra dignity to her every word and gesture.
Prior to Cinderella’s signature song, “In My Own Little Corner,” we meet adorable mice and a fluffy housecat, endearingly operated and voiced by Ensemble members. They join the dove in appealing to children and adding visual comedy to the scenes they inhabit.
When we’re introduced to the parents of the prince, I am impressed by the crowning glory of Queen Constantina, played by the delightful Asia Lige-Arnold, whom I have enjoyed at ArtsCentric and at Toby’s Dinner Theater in Columbia. Her manner and voice are ideal for the role, and she’s astonishing dancing in glorious gold platform sandals. I like the chemistry between her and King Maximillian, played by Curtis McNeil, who is quite elegant and does not look too big for his britches or jacket, despite the script. Their duet, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” is sweet enough to make me enjoy that twice-orphaned musical anomaly.
Jade Madden (who shares the Fairy Godmother role with Pam Ward) makes her spectacular appearance singing “Impossible/It’s Possible” and encourages Cinderella to be more assertive, while the magic of theatrical wizardry transforms a pumpkin into a carriage and mice into horses. Meanwhile, Lighting Designer Max Doolittle and Sound Designer Alec Green create a thunderstorm so convincing it frightens some children in the audience, even as it dramatically upgrades Cinderella’s simple frock into an elaborate ballgown. Startled screams are followed by astonished gasps at the visual splendor. Ensemble members Elijah Ali, Heinz Adjakwah, Anwar Thomas, Patrick Leonardo Casimir, and Angelo Harrington II are absolutely charming as horses.
Choreography continues to impress in the ballroom sequence, where the Prince is obligated to engage with an assortment of eligible young ladies before Cinderella’s staircase entrance. Nuako and Moore’s performance of “Ten Minutes Ago” is satisfying both auditorily and visually, as is their next number, “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful.” Nikki Owens and Malsahuna Hamm once again shine as Grace and Joy singing “Stepsister’s Lament,” their voices and timing so spot-on it’s a shame the band overpowered the vocals.
ArtCentric’s visually splendid Cinderella is a worthy offering for a special outing, whatever you celebrate, as the show itself celebrates hope, resilience, and the transformative power of love. ArtsCentric’s Cinderella is a lush tour-de-force on Baltimore’s theater scene.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
ArtsCentric’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Enchanted Edition) plays through December 23, 2023 (Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM; Sundays at 3:00 PM), presented by Baltimore Center Stage – 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets ($45; $20 for students) are available through the Box Office (410-332-0033) or online.
The program for the production is online here.
COVID Safety: Baltimore Center Stage’s current policy includes mask-optional performances on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturday evenings, and Sunday matinees, and mask-required performances on Wednesdays, and Saturday matinees. During those performances, masks may only be removed in designated eating and drinking areas. For more COVID-safety information, please visit here.
Center Stage’s next productions include Mexodus and The Hot Wing King.
Reviewer’s Parking Advice: Center Stage is in the Mount Vernon area of Baltimore City, so plan ahead for parking, or avoid it by hailing a ride for your evening. That said, by arriving early, I find nearby street parking, and it’s free. Center Stage is also accessible by public transit.
Fun Factoid: The musical number “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” was cut from the stage show Oklahoma! in 1943, shoehorned into and filmed for Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944 but left on the editing room floor, dropped into the 1945 film State Fair, and reused for television’s Cinderella in 1957.
Reviewer’s Feedback for the Theater: Center Stage, if it wants to avert a decline into perceived amateurism, might want to do a better job deterring in-performance cell phone use by guests. I was distracted not only by the child next to me using a cell phone, but by the adult who (after using it to photograph the action several times) handed it to her. Ahead of me, in the front row, another guest used their cell phone camera more than once during the performance. In the front row. There are signs in the restrooms requesting that people turn their devices all the way off and an announcement to that effect at the opening of the show. To no avail, obviously.
Baltimore Center Stage Presents ArtsCentric’s Production of
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Enchanted Edition)
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Adapted for the stage by Tom Briggs
From the teleplay by Robert L. Freedman
Directed by Kevin S. McAllister