If you attend Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, be sure to arrive early, because audience-watching is a big part of the fun. Children everywhere are flush with excitement at the prospect of seeing live theater. Boys and girls who never before have known the unique thrill of holding a ticket in their tiny hands are passing through the gates into a realm of magic. Wherever you look, people are carrying flower bouquets, to bestow after the show to a relative or neighbor in the children's ensemble. Young girls are dressed to the nines, with ribbons and bows (even the occasional tiara) in their hair; typically, the smallest are wearing the highest heels. Little boys are peering intently through binoculars, even if they're sitting up front in box seats. Parents have knowing smiles on their faces, as doubtless they recall when they too were young and were taken to see their first musical at the Muny.
It might even have been Cinderella, though it wouldn't have been this Cinderella. This current incarnation is a far cry from the version that debuted in Forest Park in 1961, which is all to the good. Even when it premiered on CBS in 1957 as a 90-minute special starring Julie Andrews, this Rodgers and Hammerstein concoction was decidedly modest fare. Some of Rodgers' waltzes were pleasant enough, but Hammerstein's book lacked wit and pace.
After Hammerstein died in 1960, the TV show was adapted for the London stage -- successfully but not happily. That stilted version is the one that opened at the Muny in '61. Through the decades, anonymous hands have sought to solve the show's problems; four decades later, thanks to some radical reconstructive surgery, they've largely succeeded. This extensively rewritten book -- while still not witty -- is at least serviceable and moves quickly. (The entire show runs less than two hours.)
The most tuneful of the original songs -- "Impossible" and "A Lovely Night" -- are supplemented by additional songs borrowed from the R&H trunk. "Boys and Girls Like You and Me," which this go-round is sung by the King (Joneal Joplin) and Queen (Joan Marshall), originally was written for and rejected by -- ready for this? -- the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Nearly six decades later, it's still not much of a song. A happier transfer is "No Other Love," the once-popular tango from Me and Juliet in 1953. Here, it veritably becomes Cinderella's theme song and inspires an intelligent ballet.
We don't see much ballet at the Muny these days. (There's not a lot of call for ballet in the likes of Godspell or Fiddler on the Roof.) But 85 years ago, the Muny was conceived for large dancing choruses, and this week's near-capacity opening-night audience was enthralled by the exquisite dance interludes. Even the children's ensemble performed with grace and charm.
Doubtless because of all the revisions the show has sustained, Cinderella herself now gets pretty much lost in Act 1. At the end of the first 30 minutes she had sung only one song (albeit twice). Nevertheless, Kate Manning acts and sings with sweet sincerity, and Danny Gurwin brings a relaxed friendliness to the cardboard-cutout Prince. (It's a fairy tale, remember? There's no character development here.) As usual, the low-comedy relief is left to the Stepmother (Ruth Williamson) and Cinderella's two foolish stepsisters (Toni DiBuono, Lisa Howard); all three deliver highly polished performances.
Truth to tell, this entire production delivers polished entertainment. Cinderella is hardly a demanding piece of material, but its limited requirements are imaginatively met. All in all, this is arguably the most fully realized Muny offering in at least the past three seasons. Under the current artistic administration, whose policy seems to be that nothing good happened in Forest Park prior to 1990, it's not the norm for the Muny to mount a production that entertains today's audiences while paying homage (however inadvertently) to the grand traditions of the past. But hey, as Cinderella's godmother sings, "Impossible things are happening every day." When they do, it makes for a truly lovely night.