Dallas — It’s no wonder audiences can’t get enough of this feminist reimagining of one of the least feminist story tales in the fairy tale canon. When the story’s heroine is Cinderella, the moral of the story is, apparently, “endure bad treatment with patience and compassion, and eventually, through no real effort on your part, sheer luck will bring you your happy ending. But when reworked by Newbery-award winning author Gail Carson Levine as the unlucky Ella of Frell, suddenly we’re cooking with gas. No mild, passive heroine in this story: Ella claws, kicks, and scratches to earn her happy ending, and, given that the story has been (loosely) adapted not only into a feature film but now into a stage musical, it’s clearly a tale that strikes a chord. Dallas Children’s Theater’s production of the musical Ella Enchanted is sweet, if slight, with some lovely performances, and offers children (especially girls) a decidedly modern twist on a tale in desperate need of a revamp.
Ella (Erika Larsen) is, not to put too fine a point on it, cursed. Confronted with a crying baby Ella, a foolish fairy named Lucinda (Tiffany Solano DeSena) decides to grant her the “gift” of obedience, meaning that Ella must follow any command given to her. Ella’s mother, Lady Eleanor (Jessica D. Turner), keeps Ella’s condition a secret when she’s younger, even from Ella’s father, the foolish and greedy Sir Peter (Brian Hathaway), lest people use her curse to take advantage of her, and encourages her attempts to rebel and find loopholes in any commands given to her. But when Lady Eleanor dies, Ella’s father takes up with the gold-digging Dame Olga (Turner in a dual role) and Ella is packed off to finishing school with Olga’s vile daughters Hattie (Alyssa Cavazos) and Olive (Gena Loe). Her only comfort at school, where Hattie and Olive have discovered Ella’s propensity for obedience and take full advantage of it, is letters from Prince Charmont (Clint Gilbert), who befriended Ella after her mother’s death and delights in her feistiness, falling ever more in love with her in each letter. But when scheming Hattie commands Ella to tell a visiting Char that she hates him, Ella runs away from school, determined to find Lucinda and make her lift the curse so that she can finally be free to choose her own destiny.
Levine’s story is pretty severely pared down for this musical adaptation by playwright Karen Zacarias and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma—a number of significant characters and sub-plots have been excised to keep the focus on Ella and her journey—which, although understandable, means it loses a little of the flavor and depth of the original novel, and the musical numbers are, it must be noted, quite simplistic (even for a children’s adaptation) and almost entirely forgettable. That said, the adaptation manages to hold on to the key elements anchoring the story and cuts to the heart of what makes Ella such a vital, appealing heroine.
Larsen’s Ella is certainly appealing herself, with a sweet, open face and a nice clear voice, although her Ella seems a little muted—the character’s anger and rebellious spirit don’t always come through with the necessary intensity. But she shares a bumbling sort of chemistry with Gilbert’s Prince Char, and their letters back and forth are a high point of the production. Jessica D. Turner is perhaps the standout performer of the piece; her Lady Eleanor and Dame Olga are completely different creatures, and I only wished she got more stage time. Another standout performance was De Sena’s Lucinda, who not only has a gorgeous, operatic voice, but who commits whole-heartedly to her dim, but essentially good-natured character. As the scheming stepsisters, Cavazos and Loe are a good comedy duo, with Loe’s slow-witted, galumphing Olive as a particular treat.
Director (and choreographer) Nancy Schaeffer keeps things moving at a fast clip and deploys her actors well to cover various set and costume changes. The set itself (designed by Michelle Harvey) is fairly minimal, but well-conceived, with a pastoral backdrop onto which later setting can be superimposed, and the space to the sides of the stage are used well to represent various other locations. There are some nice costumes on display (costume design by Lyle Huchton)—Dame Olga’s swishy gowns with their massive hoop skirts underneath and Lucinda’s sequined green and gold dress as particular standouts—but the conception of the stepsisters’ costumes as a sort of mix of 80s-era fashion with clown elements—was a little baffling and more than a little out of step with the rest of the cast. And kudos to sound designer Marco Salinas for keeping the actors audible over the music, which is becoming rarer and rarer in musical productions these days; never once did the music overpower the performers at the matinee viewed.
The little—and not so little—princesses in the audience (many of them in their Sunday best, and some in Anna and Elsa costumes, which is apparently now the gold standard for modern princess-wear) were delighted by the production, and their parents seemed engaged as well, though I think DCT is correct in its assessment that the show is geared more towards older kids—they specify six and up, and judging by some of the fidgety toddlers in the crowd, I’d say that’s about right. So if you absolutely can’t listen to one more rendition of “Let It Go,” come see a live-action princess in action who’s got a lot to teach about fighting to make your happy ending fit you, not the other way around.