I guess from earliest childhood there’s a little part of all of us that wishes we could live in a fairy tale world. On an enchanted evening a week ago, I got my chance right here in Montgomery County. The occasion was the Opening Night of Crighton Theatre’s new production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Cinderella.” This marvelous gem is unique in the R & H repertoire because it was originally written for CBS television and broadcast live on March 31, 1957. CBS had hoped to trump NBC’s popular 1955 and 1956 telecasts of Mary Martin’s “Peter Pan.” The effort was a great success, garnering 107 million viewers compared with the 65 million who had watched “Peter Pan” two years earlier. More recently, “Cinderella” has been popularized as a stage production. A national tour, featuring Eartha Kitt, arrived in Houston’s Jones Hall last season. I attended that production and thoroughly enjoyed it; but the Crighton’s version, skillfully directed by Marty Craig (with assistance from Amy Sowers), is much more satisfying. In my opinion, it would pass with high marks if it were presented on Broadway.
To begin with, Ms. Craig’s effort features the extraordinary Renaissance-style costumes of Lynn Peverill. Peverill’s elegant and creative use of color and fabric creates all the visual wonder of a truly magical fairy tale world. I chatted with Crighton veteran, Dennis O’Connor, as he entertained arriving guests in the lobby. He explained that his battle-ready suit of armor was a Peverill creation that she had just quickly created using “…a bit of this and a bit of that.” The costumes were further enhanced by the highly mobile and very charming set designs of Ron Craig. Rounding out these delightful production values was the superb musical direction of Laurie Cosby. She clearly cherished the gentle R & H score as she conducted a magnificent 14-piece orchestra made up of local musicians. >From musical numbers to scene changes, their performance in the pit tied everything together and may have been the best I have ever heard in the unpredictable world of Community Theater.
Turning now to the wonderful cast in this “Cinderella,” the title role was beautifully sung and performed by the equally beautiful Blythe Herring. The recent Spring High School graduate was perfectly cast here, and I hope she will invite me to view her future efforts as she now begins studies at U. of Houston. Her princely and handsome co-star, Jeff Bingham, did an excellent job as well. He has a convincing stage presence, a pleasant voice, and I look forward to seeing him in future productions, especially if a bit of vocal coaching can polish his singing skills. And speaking of singing skills, this cast was near perfect, particularly in the wonderful ensemble singing of the full chorus. If microphones were in use they were never in evidence; and Sound Designer, Jim Bingham deserves credit for giving us the feel of real voices in a real theater. Josh Griffith, as the Herald, is in very fine voice as he joins the crowd in the opening medieval street scene to sing, “The Prince is Giving a Ball.” Cut to the quaint kitchen of Cinderella’s house. We meet Cinderella’s deliciously mean and pompous Stepmother (Judith Baker) and the comically vicious stepsisters, Joy (Giny Mendez) and Portia (Kelly Gotschall). They nag Cinderella endlessly, and she retreats to charm us with the sweet, “In My Own Little Corner.” In the elegant Royal Dressing Room we get our first taste of the fine voices of the Queen (Karen Liles), the King (Tom LeRoy), the Steward (Joe Winter), and the Chef (J.D. Dillard). The beautiful Liles and the rotund and affable LeRoy make a humorous royal pair as they duet sublimely in “Boys and Girls Like You and Me.” Ms. Liles voice would be a hit on any stage. Mr. Winter’s genial Chef looks a bit like Pavarotti, and Mr. Dillard proves he is smooth-voiced and glib in “Your Majesties,” as a delightful parade of characters march through with all the makings for the feast.
For still more fun we have the delightfully gaudy costumes of the stepmother and stepsisters. With infectious hilarity the fairy Godmother (Sandy Cawley) sings a wonderful “Impossible,” and Cinderella’s wishing scene with her is most compelling and believable. Her ball gown cleverly arrives by “air mail,” and she is transposed in the creative lighting of designer, Justin Woods. With two properly dignified and very serious coachmen in attendance, the stunning pumpkin coach arrives. It is accompanied by a ballet from six talented and beautifully costumed dancing “mice.” They show off some of the fine choreography of Georganna Mills. Her dance designs frequently enhance the evening, especially in the ballroom scenes and in the delightful dances of the village children.
The intermission was nicely seasoned by excited youngsters in the audience exploring the beautiful Crighton lobby and stepping outside to view the lovely, lighted, horse-drawn coach (generously provided by Gullo Ford-Mercury) that was awaiting Cinderella and her Prince. Then it was time for an exquisite ballroom scene in Act II. There were nicely staged court dances with a humorous touch of snobbery and some hilarious antics as the stepsisters tried to win the affection of the Prince. Cinderella and the Prince have smashing duets with “Ten Minutes Ago,” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” The stepsisters offer the consummate song of jealousy in “Stepsister’s Lament,” and then join their mother for the fun-filled nonsense of “A Lovely Night.” The three ladies join Cinderella in a memorable song of dreams, “When You’re Driving Through the Moonlight.” There is lots more excitement surrounding the search for a certain maiden who loses her slipper, but I mustn’t give away the outcome. Suffice it to say the final ensemble reprise of “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” was one of the most blissfully pleasing moments of musical theater I can remember.
As for complaints, I have just one. The unique Opening Night festivities should have attracted major media attention. Cinderella and the Prince were driven (in the aforementioned coach) to their gala, black-tie optional, Wedding Reception / Garden Party at nearby Heather’s Glen. This Crighton “First Nighter” affair featured full buffet, open bar, Renaissance Festival entertainers, and a most delicious wedding cake. My guest, Ruthellen Hinton and I were honored when joined at table by society/entertainment columnist Peggie Miller, her charming husband, Cliff, and several of their friends. We even had a pleasant visit from Lillian Niederhofer, a leading local benefactor of this production. Her investment could not have produced any greater return than “Cinderella!”
(The Courier 9.8.02)