At a chaotic time of year, in a chaotic period of history, there's something to be said for the comfort of old stories well told.
In the New Phoenix Theatre, one of the city's best storytellers has uncovered new charms embedded in one of the world's oldest morality tales.
Kelli Bockock-Natale, the theater's artistic director, has added a patina of contemporary references and updated dialogue to the classic fairy tale. In this way, she has drawn it just far enough into the present to register with today's young audiences while retaining its ancient charms. She has assembled a gifted cast for the task, fitting each performer into a role that highlights his or her skills and obscures most of the rough edges.
The production unfolds largely within a thin column of floor space bordered by audiences on three sides, with actors occasionally bounding onto the proscenium stage. This is an awkward setup and sometimes leaves theatergoers in the dark, but in its best moments achieves a kind of informal ease that is instrumental to the production's success.
The story is inflected with moments of levity and simple stagecraft, including modern asides and sound effects provided by narrator Ray Boucher, who is a joy to watch throughout. Bocock-Natale has added plenty of campy humor to the tale, especially in the role of Cinderella's evil stepmother (Eric Rawski) and fairy godmother (Caitlin Coleman), who at one point suggests she try a pair of Espadrilles or "a kicky sandal" before finally settling on the classic glass slipper.
Bocock-Natale includes a great dance number set to Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" and also an original love song by Daniel Williams sung by Jamie Nablo as Cinderella and Alejandro Gomez, who delivers a sensitive performance as the prince. The song was an admirable risk, but doesn't quite fit the tone of the production.
As in most retellings of the classic tale, the title character is a cipher, reduced to "merely a creature of ash and toil" by her circumstances before a man swoops in to save her. How very 17th century. Even so, Nablo gives Cinderella a lovely interpretation radiating with naive innocence and grace.
The focal point of the show, however, is Rawski's performance as Cinderella's evil stepmother. It's a role that almost begs to be overplayed, and Rawski brings it to within a micrometer of its campy life.
Rawski does not merely walk onto the stage, but struts out like some sort of disenchanted peacock. His eye-rolls, guffaws and grand theatrical gestures, bearing the clear influence of legendary Buffalo performer Jimmy Janowski brightened with flashes of Bette Davis, are tectonic in scope. But he can also be genuinely scary in certain key moments. It is a gloriously over-the-top performance, responsible for about 80 percent of the evening's laughs, every one of which Rawski earns.
Less nuanced but still highly amusing performances come from Michael Wachowiak and Sean Murphy as Cinderella's stepsisters, sporting intentionally grotesque costumes by Bocock-Natale. And Coleman is deeply in her element as Cinderella's fairy godmother, exercising her classic catalogue of facial expressions and expert comic delivery to hilarious effect.
The most refreshing aspect of Bocock-Natale's production and her work in general is that it does not take itself too seriously. Nor, with some exceptions, does it linger too long in camp indulgence. Instead, it strikes an ideal balance of playfulness and fidelity to the serious heart of the story, which we could all use a reminder of these days:
"Have courage and be kind, and all will be well."
3 stars (out of 4)
"Cinderella" runs through Dec. 16 in the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 853-1334 or visit newphoenixtheatre.org.