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Paramount cast shines brightly in ‘Cinderella,’ though fairy tale’s message remains dated

Oscar Hammerstein’s book has been tweaked, but the story is the same as ever — and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Mikayla Renfrow makes her Paramount Theatre debut in the title role of “Cinderella.”
Mikayla Renfrow makes her Paramount Theatre debut in the title role of “Cinderella.”
Liz Lauren

The Paramount Theatre’s “Cinderella” is opulent to behold, gorgeously sung and filled with all glitter and (seeming) magic one expects the lavish theater palace in Aurora.

Directed by Brenda Didier, with music direction by Kory Danielson, there are wonderful things about “Cinderella,” its easy-to-hum music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein among them.

Adapted for the stage by Tom Briggs, from the teleplay by Robert L. Freeman (and Charles Perrault’s version of the original fairy tale), Hammerstein’s book has been tweaked, but the story is the same as ever: Orphan girl, abusive stepmother/stepsisters, fairy godmother, ball, charming prince, midnight, glass slipper, happily-ever-after.

The most noticeable tweak gives Cinderella (Mikayla Renfrow, an ethereal dancer with a voice of silvery sweetness) a moment of pure agency. It arrives as Cinderella defies the orders of her Stepmother (Sarah Bockel) to remain silent and invisible, instead stepping into the light and simply, assertively stating “I’m here.” It’s a powerful moment.

Cinderella (Mikayla Renfrow) and Prince Christopher (Markcus Blair) Meet Cute at the ball in Paramount Theatre’s production of “Cinderella,” directed by Brenda Didier.
Cinderella (Mikayla Renfrow) and Prince Christopher (Markcus Blair) Meet Cute at the ball in Paramount Theatre’s production of “Cinderella,” directed by Brenda Didier.
Liz Lauren

Other notable plusses: All hail Lionel (Lorenzo Rush Jr.), town cryer/assistant to prince Prince Christopher (Markcus Blair, charming in a thanklessly bland role). When Chris mopes that he has no life of his own, Lionel claps back with a forest of shade contained in half a dozen words. Lionel deserves a fairy godwhatever to give him his own show.

The Stepmother’s one-liners (“What he lacks in height, he makes up for in cash.” “How long does it take to wrap a salmon?”) are also comic gold, as is a bit where she channels Carol Burnett-as Scarlett-O’Hara by fashioning a gown from drapes.

Didier and co-choreographer Tiffany Krause fill the stage with wowza showstoppers, from peasants vogueing in Lederhosen to Cinderella’s balletic, iconic waltz across the royal ballroom.

Theresa Ham’s costumes are detailed and character-specific. The stepsisters (Jacquelyne Jones, Tiffany T. Taylor), for example, have bulbous, cabbage- sized floral arrangements sprouting like giant acne from their gowns. Cinderella’s baby-blue ballgown is interpreted with the sparkle of a thousand Shirley Temples.

That gown comes, of course, from the Fairy Godmother (Jerica Exum, serving Lilith meets Eve meets Dorothy Dandridge meets your favorite aunt). When Exum wields her scepter, you know big magic is going to follow.

Sarah Bockel (center) plays Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Tiffany T. Taylor (left) is stepsister Joy, and Jacquelyne Jones plays stepsister Grace in Paramount Theatre’s Cinderella,
Sarah Bockel (center) plays Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Tiffany T. Taylor (left) is stepsister Joy, and Jacquelyne Jones plays stepsister Grace in Paramount Theatre’s “Cinderella.”
Liz Lauren

The problem is the story itself: If you are a girl and want to be happy-ever-after, you must marry a rich man. Don’t tell that message doesn’t worm its way into impressionable psyches. Yes, it’s just a fairy tale. But “Cinderella” is also a global brand at this point, about as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola.

Further, the script asks the audience to empathize with a prince living in a palace, with endless wealth and two loving parents (Rashada Dawan and Michael Kingston, regal and real as Queen Constantina and King Maximillian) as much as it empathizes with an orphan perpetually stuck in the scullery. That’s ridiculous, and not in a good way.

At the Paramount, there are two camped-up scenes of garish women debasing themselves, each played for broad laughs. The first is at the ball, as googly-eyed, tittering maidens do everything but death-drops as they try to keep Chris entertained. He rolls his eyes when they aren’t looking. He ’s the one — not the women — who complains about being treated like livestock. The second is the shoe-fitting test, which has women literally willing to limp through life if it means they get the guy.

To use the Fairy Godmother’s language, that’s a whole lot of folderal and fiddle-dee-dee.