This year's best holiday show: a sparkling, Christmas-free 'Cinderella'

The Fifth Avenue pulls out the stops for Rodgers and Hammerstein with a lavish staging, beautifully modulated performances, and unforgettable stepsisters.

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Modern-era Pioneer Square horse-drawn carriage rides are for tourists.

The Fifth Avenue pulls out the stops for Rodgers and Hammerstein with a lavish staging, beautifully modulated performances, and unforgettable stepsisters.

It's a treat to see a show that doesn’t have a holiday theme, and a delight to discover the Fifth Avenue Theatre’s Cinderella. Just when it seems Christmas will overwhelm us (I’m no Scrooge, but it’s nice to have a little variety), along comes a new musical that has all the magic and wonder we could want from a holiday production, without the usual snowflakes and nutcrackers.

The Fifth’s production team has cobbled together its frothy Cinderella from a number of previous versions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, starting with the original, made for television in 1957 and starring Julie Andrews. This was followed by a 1958 British stage musical, a new TV version with Lesley Ann Warren in 1965 and a radically different one for TV in 1997 starring the pop singer Brandy. What’s remarkable is that this Cinderella feels completely fresh and coherent, not at all cut-and-paste, even with the addition of Richard Rodgers songs from other shows.

The score doesn’t have the soaring power or musical consistency of Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites like South Pacific, The King and I,
and The Sound of Music. But it has  a number of crowd-pleasing tunes and one show-stopper by the two stepsisters. As in all Fifth Avenue productions, the voices are lovely; Jennifer Paz as Cinderella, Brandon O’Neill as the prince, and Kendra Kassebaum as the fairy godmother bring a gentle sweetness and believability to songs like “The Sweetest Sounds,” “Impossible,” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”

This is a show that's easily overacted, with characters that could in less able hands lapse into parody or caricature — Cinderella and the prince too saccharine, the stepmother and stepsisters too ghastly. But this first-rate cast strikes precisely the right balance. Paz, O’Neill, and Kassebaum bring the same restraint to their acting as their singing, Greg McCormick Allen is a delightfully priggish prince’s steward, Allen Fitzpatrick and Cynthia Jones are pitch-perfect as the loving but overbearing king and queen, and Suzanne Bouchard gives a sly comic flair to the stepmother.

But Sarah Rudinoff and Nick Garrison (en travesti) as the stepsisters will likely leave the most lasting impression. They’re simultaneously ridiculous and pathetic, clearly destined for the spinster’s life and hounded to death by an overly ambitious mother. The showstopping "Stepsisters' Lament" gives ample space for their comic talents.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this Cinderella is the way the Fifth's production design pulls out all the stops, even in these challenging times. David Gallo’s candy-colored sets, Renato Balestra’s glittery costumes and Tom Sturge’s sparkling lighting create a fanciful, if slightly off-kilter, fairy tale world. In the dazzling royal-blue and white wedding scene, it’s easy to believe that dreams really do come true.

If you go: Cinderella, Fifth Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue. Tickets start at $29 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-625-1900, 888-5TH-4TIX), or online.


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