Northern Kentucky University’s magical production of “Cinderella” swept the audience off its feet. Ken Jones’ adaptation of the 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical wowed a sold-out audience Friday at NKU’s Corbett Theatre. Jones’ two-act production alternated wildly between beauty, comedy and camp.
At times, the scene transitions from high hilarity to emotional drama whiplashed audience expectations in regard to what was coming next. Yet, most of the time, these swings in emotion worked wonderfully by helping maintain an energy and liveliness that engaged the audience while avoiding the well-worn formula that people might expect.
The live orchestra, directed by Jamey Strawn, also greatly enhanced the performing dynamic. This was most obvious when their performance supported the production’s dramatic scenes.
They were not the only ones at the top of their games. Stars Elizabeth Sunderhaus as Cinderella and Bradford Frost as The Prince acted and sang with a visceral strength and clarity that demanded attention. While the musical numbers were at the very least entertaining, Sunderhaus and Frost’s renditions of “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” lent this show an emotional warmth and depth that it would otherwise have been lacking. Coupled with Sunderhaus’ performances of “In My Own Little Corner,” their ability to keep their characters grounded, sympathetic and convincing while almost everyone around them was cracking up, formed the necessary contrast for this production to excel.
Sunderhaus and Frost benefitted from an experienced supporting cast that was able to pull off the comedic changes of pace that Jones incorporated into the musical.
“We learned to be a very consistent cast,” said Jake Hitch, senior musical theater major. “I feel like this show — honestly, I felt like we were ready to go three weeks ago. Everything just came together so quickly. We just had so much time to really perfect everything and get everything together. I just think everyone has worked so well together to really unify everything.”
Grayson Wittenbarger as the King, Carmyn Howe as the Queen, the five mice and the twelve members of the supporting ensemble exhibited strong, cohesive performances that formed the seamless backbone which this show required. Their discipline and focused execution of the ensemble songs, comedic exchanges and group choreography ensured that “Cinderella” was very steady.
Individually, Spenser Smith as the Royal Herald repeatedly stole scenes that lesser actors would have merely moved through. Smith’s performance of “The Prince is Giving a Ball” sidestepped the landmines of forgettable setup songs by infusing it with a great deal of ham, hilarity and physical comedy. His follow-ups in the ensemble songs “Your Majesty” and “Chef’s List and Dance” and his spoken dialogue shined for a reason.
“Well, one night at rehearsals while we were rehearsing was ‘bit night’ and that’s where you come in and we run the show and you can do anything you want. You can add in any kind of physical movement or any kind of joke or anything like that to add to your character,” Smith said. “What was so fun about it was (Ken Jones) let me keep them. I thought they were outrageous and he was going to hate me or kill me or something and he let me keep them.”
The terrible trinity of Robyn Novak, Cindy Head and Ruth Kennedy as the Wicked Stepmother and her two malignant daughters Joy and Portia were challenged to be antagonistic yet comedic characters. They succeeded admirably, beginning with their over-the-top campy walks and ending with their remarkably shrill characterizations of very unpleasant people. Novak nailed the stepmother’s repugnant conceit and arrogance. Head gave a dirty, gritty performance as the human equivalent of a mud puddle while Kennedy was hilarious as she flitted around the stage as the empty-headed tramp.
Similarly, Sara Kenny’s assertively tough portrayal of the Fairy Godmother was impressive. Between harassing the stepfamily and nonsensically helping Cinderella get to where she needed to be, Kenny’s characterizations also helped stick a fork in the occasional overabundance of comedy.
The only major criticism of this “Cinderella” was the final transition of the pumpkin from vegetable to super-sized coach.
“The pumpkins are so cool, and they’re back and forth and back and forth, and they keep getting bigger and bigger. Then the carriage comes out and it’s a little disappointing,” said senior acting major Frost. Senior acting major Smith agreed. “They sing about the carriage, and then what comes out is not a carriage,” said Smith.
”Cinderella” runs from Feb. 17 through Feb. 27 at the NKU Corbett Theatre. For more information, call the box office at (859) 572-5464, or visit their website at http://theatre.nku.edu/boxoffice.
Story by Chuck Heffner