12/29/2019 ELLA ENCHANTED Synchronicity Theatre
There has been a plethora of musical retellings of the classic Cinderella story. In fact 2019 started with the (perhaps) Broadway-bound Ever After. As a (if you’ll forgiver me) synchronous bookend to the year, Synchronicity Theatre Family Series has mounted an absolutely magical retelling, Ella Enchanted, based more on the original Gail Carson Levine young adult novel than the 2004 movie adaptation, which took so many liberties with Ms. Levine’s story, that she commented that it is "so different from the book that it's hard to compare them," and suggested "regarding the movie as a separate creative act"
Here, playwright Karen Zacarias and songwriter Deborah Wicks La Puma (who also collaborated on Einstein is a Dummy) have fashioned an adaptation that hits the essential story points and delivers a tuneful musical that is a total joy from beginning to end.
And Synchronicity (and director Jenna Tamisiea Elser) have staged it with a small ensemble, a ton of imaginative flourishes, and a leading actress who gives one of the best performances of the year. Perhaps long(ish) for the under-8 audiences (90 minutes with an intermission), the productions is so full of movement, color, and invention, that there was not a single restless moment in the kid-laden Sunday matinee.
Let’s be honest here, the Cinderella story is an archetype that always works. It appeals to our innate fear of parental neglect and our innate optimism that “Happily Ever After” will be (eventually) our lot in life. And this version is filled to the brim with female empowerment. What’s not to love about that?
So, on her first day of life, young Ella is given a “gift” by her fairy godmother, Lucinda. Well, it’s more of a gift for her mother, Eleanor – total obedience. In other words, a simple “stop crying,” “go to sleep,” or “eat your vegetables” will force her to obey, removing all those aggravations most new parents survive. It doesn’t take long for Ella to realize her “gift” is truly a curse. Especially since, like her mother, Ella is an energetic force of nature, a strong-willed child who chafes, even agonizes under her “special curse.”
When mother Eleanor dies suddenly, Ella’s wealthy father, Sir Peter, is snapped up by Dame Olga and Ella is packed off to finishing school with Olga’s own horrid daughters, Hattie and Olive. Hattie learns of the curse and quickly makes life a living country-of-the-gnomes, especially when Ella strikes up a friendship with the shy Prince Char.
This is the Cinderella story, so you can probably take a shot at guessing the rest and not be too far off the mark. Along the way, a wealth of lessons is put on display – friendship, forgiveness, language, honesty, kindness – but displayed with a gentle, and often humorous veneer. We get to meet dragons and unicorns and a spectacular bird who speaks every language in creation, including the enticing Ogre-ish, a language that lures you and me to willingly become the “dish of the day.”
And, ultimately, the story completely shatters any vestige of that “obedience is good” paradigm.
Centering this production is the remarkable L’Oreal Roaché as Ella. She gives a spirited and energetic performance (her “snap to attention” movement with every obedience moment -- which happens often -- would be enough to put most people into traction), she creates a compelling and original character that transcends the archetypes, and she sings with a gorgeous voice that overwhelms even as it delights. This is truly one of the best musical performances of the year, on a par with Sierra Boggess’ in Ever After.
She is very ably supported by an ensemble of protean character actors, Marcie Millard (as both Mother and Dame Olga), Meg Hawkins and Alexandra Joy (as Hattie and Olive and a few ogres and menagerie denizens), Robert Hindsman as a neglectful Sir Peter ( “My business in the land of the Elves was just too small”) and a very fey steward (the whole slipper subplot is made moot by Ella and the Prince knowing each other for years before the ball – “But its such a grandly gorgeous slipper!!!”), and Amy Reynolds is a scream as Lucinda and “Mistress Manners” of the finishing school. If Alex Harding makes for a bland(ish) Prince Char, it may only seem bland(ish) because Ms. Roaché is such a force of nature and ANYONE would seem bland(ish) against her.
Derrick Vanmeter has designed and built a functional set consisting of a platform and “magical” doors that help keep scene transitions easy and instantaneous. Although the program lists no projection designer, credit must be given for the homage to words and language displayed therein, and for the sparkly shiny magical effects whenever, well, whenever magic happens, which is often. Lighting designer Dakota Adams has a wonderful sense of angle and color and mood, and his work is an integral part of this show’s magic. Costume Designer April Andrew has created some beautiful gowns and creatures, which I have to presume are also practical, considering the many “fast changes,” especially when Ms. Millard must very quickly transform from Eleanor to Dame Olga. And it would be cruel to not mention the props of Samantha Eubanks, props that include magic books and elegant jewelry and, especially, oversized treats for a well-realized “Wedding of the Giants” (“Big Business there,” according to Sir Peter).
This is a wonderful production, and I am so sorry that I couldn’t get to it earlier in the run. It is sure to appeal to the most restless kids, as well as to the taller folk who accompany them. It was a joy to spend an afternoon with Ella and her story.
And it makes a perfect 2019 bookend to Ever After. Would I be considered a Philistine if I were to confess that I prefer this version?
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SynchroElla)