Theater Review: “Cinderella” at Olney Theatre

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s old-fashioned tale rests on the winsome performance of its lead character.

By: Missy Frederick

If you’re going to say one thing about Jessica Lauren Ball’s performance as the title character in Olney Theater’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, it’s that she’s completely, wholeheartedly earnest.

And how you react to her winsome interpretation of the role says a lot about whether you’ll embrace Olney’s cheerful, almost sing-song interpretation of the fairy tale. Embrace it wholeheartedly, and you have a colorful, optimistic night of theater ahead. Treat it with skepticism, and it all feels a little over the top.

In a sense, the lack of irony is refreshing. This Cinderella is pure fairy tale, not a winking, postmodern take on the classic story. Sets, from designer James Fouchard, are reminiscent of Candyland, like the brightly colored, handpainted, two-dimensional pumpkin carriage Cinderella takes to the ball. Pei Lee’s costumes are eye-catching and dramatic, particularly the goofy, coordinated dresses embodied by Cinderella’s bumbling stepsisters, Grace and Joy (Tracy Lynn Olivera and Jaime Kelton, a fine comedic pair). Performances are enthusiastic and winning, from Terry Burrell’s grande dame of a fairy godmother to Kevin McAllister’s amusing, foppish steward. Even the evil stepmother (Donna Migliaccio) is more sashay than scowl.

Originally a television production starring Julie Andrews, the stage version has been augmented with additional music—a song from Rodgers’s No Strings here, a number cut from the composers’ South Pacific there—in order for it to clock in at a heftier two hours. The minor key meanderings of that former number, “The Sweetest Sounds,” featuring Ball and her prince (Matthew John Kacergis), prove a little challenging for the singers to navigate. But overall, the vocal performances are impressive, from Ball’s wistful daydreaming as she sings “In My Own Little Corner” to the infectious “Impossible,” when the fairy godmother readies Cinderella for the ball.

But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is undoubtedly an old-fashioned story. Sure, Prince Christopher makes a few gestures to get to know his future bride as more than just a beautiful girl, and the Fairy Godmother has some advice to give about not only making wishes, but making the most of them once they come true. But above all else, this is a princess story. Cinderella seems more bemused than bereaved by her family’s abusive treatment of her, and the audience is there to eagerly await the moment when the slipper fits her foot like a glove. At Sunday’s matinee, when the majority of an audience of young girls and adult women alike were donning gowns and tiaras, it was clear the story still has a powerful hold on many hearts. But is it a universal story from which we can draw some modern relevance? That’s more of a stretch.

Cinderella runs through December 30 at Olney Theatre Center. Running time is about two hours. Tickets ($49) are available via Olney’s website.