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Reimagined ‘Cinderella’ musical enchants and confuses

Long before Dorothy clicked the heels of her ruby-red slippers and Carrie Bradshaw swooned over her coveted Manolo Blahnik stilettos, there were the glass slippers — those whimsical shoes that only a fairy tale could bring to life.

That fairy tale was of course, “Cinderella,” the story of a young girl forced to be a servant to her cruel stepmother and mean stepsisters until a fairy godmother and the mind-boggling footwear forever change her life.

But that’s getting ahead of the story, the whole of which is being told via the national tour of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” the Broadway musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

‘RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA’

Somewhat Recommended

When: Through Jan. 4. 2015

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $22-$115

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

You may be familiar with the story of Cinderella, or Ella, as she is called here, but it’s perhaps best to suspend many of those preconceived notions to comprehend what transpires in the two-hour and 20 minutes of this retelling, directed by Mark Brokaw and featuring the music of  Richard Rodgers and lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II, and a new book by Douglas Carter Beane.

There have been numerous film and television productions of the tale of Cinderella, the girl with the ash smudges on her face who sits in a corner by the fireplace dreaming of a happier life: the 1950 Disney animated feature; a 1957 television movie starring Julie Andrews; the beloved 1965 TV classic starring Lesley Ann Warren; and the hugely popular 1997 Disney film-for-television version starring Whitney Houston and Brandy. Next year brings the release of a Kenneth Branagh-directed, live-action version starring Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter.

While the stage version features all of the lovely and familiar songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein (as well as the addition of a tune cut from their iconic musical “South Pacific”), its core storyline is more in tune with the late-17th century fairy tale “Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre” (“Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper”) as written by Frenchman Charles Perrault.

Kecia Lewis as the Fairygodmother and  Paige Faure as Cinderella in the national touring production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s "Cinderella."| Photo © Carol Rosegg

Kecia Lewis as the Fairy godmother and Paige Faure as Cinderella. | © Carol Rosegg

Yes, the strong-willed Ella (played by Paige Faure, who fell ill and was replaced on opening night by her understudy Audrey Cardwell just four songs into the production) and her naive Prince Topher (Andy Jones in a charming turn) have their meet-cute.

Yes, there will be an invite-only gala ball so the Prince can find a bride.

Yes, a larger-than-life fairy godmother (played here by the clarion-voiced Kecia Lewis) will help Ella realize anything is possible if you believe in yourself and work hard to make your dreams come true.

Yes, there will be a pumpkin-turned-golden carriage.

And yes, of course, there will be a happily-ever-after.

But there is also some confusion along the way, much of it courtesy of a secondary plot centering around the character of Sebastian (Blake Hammond) — a manipulative guardian of the orphaned Prince, and who, unbeknownst to His Royal Highness, has been passing all sorts of repressive decrees over the poor and downtrodden. To the rescue comes the goofy revolutionary Jean-Michel (David Andino), who longs for the people’s right to vote, and the hand of Ella’s not-so-mean-after-all stepsister Gabrielle (Ashley Park). Is this a civics lesson or a treasured tale for generations of tiara-sporting little girls longing for their handsome, shoe-toting Prince Charming?

There is much updating and reimagining at work in Beane’s new book. Ella’s tale is catapulted into the 21st century, intentionally or not, with many a sight gag or snarky remark more befitting a primetime sitcom than a beloved children’s story. Jean-Michel and Gabrielle must gather up vegetables from across the kingdom to stock the pots at the local soup kitchen, where charge of the ladle is a highly coveted responsibility. The stepmother, or Madame (Beth Glover) admits she married her second husband for his money (“When he died, I got a house!”). When Ella and the Prince finally meet, what should be a breathtakingly magical moment is cut short by a silly game of “Ridicule,” in which the would-be king must choose which of his partygoers can sling the best insults. Seriously?

Andy Jones stars as Prince Topher in the national touring production of "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella"|  Photo © Carol Rosegg

Andy Jones stars as Prince Topher in  “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” | © Carol Rosegg

The production is blessed with a solid ensemble cast possessing powerhouse voices and equally formidable dance prowess (Josh Rhodes’ choreography is top-notch). The marvelous sets by Anna Louizos — lush forests, quaint country cottages and grand palace ballrooms — appear to pop out of a wondrous storybook. The beautiful costumes designed by William Ivey Long, whose color palette and incomparable use of fabrics knows no bounds, are stunning at every turn. The ingenious quick-change artistry employed for the ball gown “reveals” (there are actually two of them in the stage version) brought thunderous ovations.

Which brings us back to those shoes. Expect the unexpected when it comes to those glass slippers. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will be entirely up to you, or the little wide-eyed girl or boy inside you that remembers what happens at the stroke of midnight. Why would anyone mess with that?