Elisha Willis's forlorn and palely loitering Cinders is brutally treated by her two bullying stepsisters in their moldering kitchen, encouraged by their wicked witch of a mother, the wonderfully Cruella De Vil-like Marion Tait. The sisters, Skinny (Gaylene Cummerfield) and Dumpy (Carol-Anne Millar, having fun in a fat suit) tread a nimble line between comedy and nastiness, while never descending to caricature.
Their raucous behavior, as they attempt to attract the attention of every eligible bachelor they see, is brought to life with hilariously faulty footwork. And the regal reveling at the ball is given a modern edge as the dancers enjoy a cup cake or two. But the show is made truly heartwarming through the vision of Cinderella's suffering being transformed into deserved joy as she meets her Prince and lives happily ever after.
Designer John Macfarlane has conjured up a magical world to bring this much loved fairytale to life. After a terrific opening, he transforms the potently grim kitchen into a dream-like, star-speckled fantasia-cum-nightmare: a giant friendly frog and a pair of lively lizards help dress Cinderella for the ball; the glittering carriage, like spun sugar, folds itself together; and Cinderella vanishes at the stroke of midnight through the whirring mechanism of a simply amazing clock. The piece ends with a vast celestial body melting on to the stage.
Australian ballerina Elisha Willis dances the role of Cinderella and Glasgow-born Iain Mackay portrays the Prince. Both are excellent. But they donít steal the showóif anyone does, itís Carol-Anne Millar as Dumpy. She is hilarious in most of her scenes, and while comedy in this fairy-tale love story should be thought of as a secondary element, one cannot help but stay focused on her antics whenever sheís on stage. Sheís clad in an unflattering fat suit, which must be brutal to wear in a nearly two-hour ballet. At any rate, she has a deft comedic senseóa subtle slapstick sense too, if slapstick can ever be subtle. Marion Tait as the stepmother is evil in a very likeable way. Itís her acting more than her dancing (good as that is) that wins you over. As for the others, there isnít a weak dancer in the cast.
The costumes are splendid in their regality and, in the case of Cinderellaís domestic wear, austere simplicity. The choreography of David Bintley is imaginative and fully engaging. The sets, by John Macfarlane, are brilliantly conceived. The Victorian basement kitchen where Cinderella cares for her cruel stepsisters is imposing is its dank, yet cartoonish atmosphere. The grand ball has a bright yet, oxymoronically, dark atmosphere. When Dumpy and Skinny enter the ballroom the mood turns colorful and hilarious and bright. When Cinderella finally arrives it is festive, yet filled with passion and romance, and with foreboding. You want the sunlight to come in, but the clock strikes twelve, andÖ Well, you know the story.
The performance is not quite complete. The Third Act was pruned, as The Prince and the Cobblers, Oriental Dance and shorter numbers were cut. Oddly, the First Gallop was allocated to the Second Act here, when in fact it is the second number of the Third Act. But these are ultimately minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent offering.
It is indeed excellent, for while other Cinderellas by Rozhdestvensky, Ashkenazy, Previn and Pletnev may have featured slightly better orchestral playing, this one, with mostly moderate tempos, is largely competitive. (Actually, Iím not sure that the rough-and-ready Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra played better for Rozhdestvensky, but they did play with commitment even if their brass was at times over-the-top). This effort, led by Belgian Koen Kessels, is intelligently conceived and well played, despite a few imprecisions. The sound and camera work are excellent, and from most other perspectives this Cinderella is an utterly first-rate production.
There are other video versions of Cinderella available from the Zurich Ballet, on Bel Air Classiques, the Paris Opera Ballet (also with Kessels conducting), on Opus Arte, and several more. The Paris version places the story in Hollywood (the Prince is a movie star and the Fairy Godmother a producer!), and thus some of the fairytale quality is lost. I havenít seen the Zurich production, but suspect it might well be a worthy alternative. In any event, this Birmingham effort is a first-rate offering and well worth your attention.
Elisha Willis Iain Mackay Marion Tait
Composed by: Sergei Prokofiev
Conducted by: Koen Kessels
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