Hypocrites reimagines a forgotten version of ‘Cinderella’

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Amanda Martinez plays the title role in The Hypocrites’ world premiere production of “Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes.” (Photo: Joe Mazza)

Although she began as the subject of a folk tale in many cultures, and has existed in countless variations over the centuries, she really came into her own when, in 1697, she became the subject of a new genre, “the fairy tale,” courtesy of a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, who added a pumpkin, a fairy godmother and a pair of glass slippers to her story.

‘Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes’ When: Through Jan. 8, 2017 Where: The Hypocrites at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $36 Info: http://www.the-hypocrites.com

A darker version of the girl’s tale was penned in the 19th century by those ghoulish German brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. And since then she has inspired operas by Rossini and Massenet, a ballet by Prokofiev, and a television musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. She also has been both Disney-ized and Sondheim-ized, and even set spinning in ice skating shows.

Yes, the kind-hearted girl in question — much abused by her nasty step-sisters and later pursued by a prince — is Cinderella. But here’s a question for you: Have you ever heard of a musical version of her story titled “Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes”?

Probably not, but you are about to, as The Hypocrites — that ever adventuresome theater company that can as easily spin all the Greek tragedies into a daylong marathon as transform Gilbert and Sullivan operettas into funhouse, mosh pit romps — is waving its magic wand over “Cendrillon,” a largely unknown 1904 “chamber opera” by Pauline Viardot.

Aja Wiltshire (left) in rehearsal with adapter/musical director Andra Velis Simon for the world premiere of “Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes,” a production of The Hypocrites. (Photo: Courtesy of The Hypocrites)

Aja Wiltshire (left) in rehearsal with adapter/musical director Andra Velis Simon for the world premiere of “Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes,” a production of The Hypocrites. (Photo: Courtesy of The Hypocrites)

A leading 19th century French mezzo-soprano, teacher and composer, Viardot (who was of Spanish descent) was famous in her time: She played piano duets with Chopin, was friends with George Sand, and had a long list of admirers ranging from the French composers Charles Gounod and Hector Berlioz, to the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. Though largely forgotten, her opera (appended by a number of her other compositions, bringing the running time to about 95 minutes), is now being given new life in a world premiere adaptation by music director Andra Velis Simon, that is being directed by her frequent collaborator, Sean Graney.

Andra Velis Simon (Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux)

Andra Velis Simon (Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux)

“Sean was searching for a musical work by a female composer and found this piece,” said Velis Simon. “Neither of us had ever heard of Viardot, but when I began doing research about her I became completely fascinated, and also mad at myself for not knowing her, because her story is amazing. That’s also one of the reasons we decided to combine aspects of her real life with her Cinderella piece – a work she wrote for her vocal students, and one we have ‘very loosely’ adapted. There is no Prince Charming in the show, and no ball at the palace. And for this Cinderella ‘happily-ever-after’ means a chance for her to realize her professional dreams rather than getting married to some prince.”

“Viardot composed ‘Cendrillon’ in 1904, when she was in her late eighties and was coaching advanced students. It was performed in her home, where she held salons each week, and where the price of ‘admission’ was a potato that later was turned into soup. That’s why we’ve created a sort of show-within-a-show that suggests her life, as well as her music, although we’ve veered away from her Romantic style a bit. And we’re using the same ‘actor-as-orchestra approach’ we did with our Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, with our cast of seven performers [Gay Glenn, Amanda Martinez, Dana Omar, Joel Rodriguez, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alex Walker and Aja Wiltshire], playing piano, guitar, harmonica, flute, dulcimer, violin, percussion, toy piano, trombone and banjo.”

As Velis Simon notes: “Our Cinderella is an orphan who is adopted into a family with two other daughters who want to be opera singers, but won’t allow Cinderella, who has a much better voice, to be heard. There’s an audition scene instead of the usual ball. And instead of a glass slipper, this Cinderella leaves her audition music behind.”

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