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The Plexiglass Slipper

By Mark E. Leib

****4 stars
Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 351-8000. Runs through Jan. 4. 8 p.m. Nov. 29, and various evenings and matinees through January. $18-$53.

 

She's mean, she's vain, and she's very, very funny.

She's Suzanne Grodner, who as Cinderella's nasty stepmother almost steals the show from the 20 other cleverly re-imagined characters in this treat of a musical, The Plexiglass Slipper. Whether barking at Cinderella, egging on her two preferred daughters or reasoning that she, too, ought to have a chance to marry the Prince, Grodner is a caricature come alive -- a scheming, steaming matriarch who's part Joan Crawford, part Cruella De Vil, and part Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. So what if fortune has stuck her with two vulgar and ugly daughters (played for optimum silliness by men): They're young and marriageable, and if she has anything to say about it, they'll provide her with a free ticket to the easy life at the palace.

Grodner owns this evil stepmother, plays her with so much panache, you'll swear she's the real thing, that no acting is involved. And you'll note that if she doesn't totally dominate the evening, it's only because the whole cast is strong. The Plexiglass Slipper may ultimately be fluff, but it's ingenious, inspired fluff acted by a stageful of talented thespians. Mindless fun doesn't get much better than this.
The story that author and lyricist Jim Luigs tells is a delightfully cracked version of the Cinderella tale that most spectators know from the Disney movie. It starts at the Godmother's Guild (Local 801) where fairy godmothers go to receive their latest assignments. Among those waiting with the godmother who will eventually be assigned to Cinderella are the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins and Tinkerbell (a green point of light).

Then it's off to the palace, where it's announced that the Prince will choose his new wife at a special ball. Back at home, Cinderella labors unloved and much abused, and plans to fly the coop at her first opportunity. In fact, this post-feminist Cindy has no interest in the Prince's banquet, just as the Prince isn't much in the mood for a wife. But after the Queen shows her son her virtuosity as a tap dancer, and after Cinderella's fairy godmother gives her client a first taste of chocolate, the tale is back on track with a pumpkin turning into a car (don't ask) and Cindy's pet mice turning into two auto mechanics. There's one little mishap at the ball -- nervous Cindy pukes into a potted plant -- but fantasy takes its course, and the Prince falls for this mysterious beauty who has to run home at midnight, leaving only one shoe as a clue to her identity. Will the Prince find her again? Will the wicked stepmother or the miserable stepsisters force their vicious, oversized feet into the slipper? Can Cindy and the Prince overcome the sexual politics of the 21st century?

There's not a weak spot in the cast. As Cinderella's godmother, Patti Allison (in a lime green pantsuit) is wonderfully crumpled and prosaic. Ned Noyes as the Prince emphasizes the rebelliousness of his thin-skinned character, and Bryan Torfeh as the King manages to be both imperious and mild, a sort of sympathetic nerd who also happens to be head of state. As his wife, Wanda Richert is a painfully physical middle-aged woman desperate for her husband's sexual attentions, and as the two evil stepsisters, Josh Rowan and Jaime Tintor are hilariously repugnant, farting and fighting and utterly unconscious of their own distastefulness.

And then there's Kris Danford as poor Cinderella. This lovely actress plays her role with a sorrowful obstinacy. Once noticed by the Prince, she's first smitten, then skeptical, and it's not at all clear that even a perfectly fitting slipper can bring this bellicose beauty to melt in her lover's arms. Other notable performers include Victor Mongillo as a Palace Guard who speaks with his trumpet and Sharon Spelman as Hester, the businesslike head of the godmother's guild; as usual, this skillful actress so transforms herself for the role that one almost doesn't recognize her.

And then there are the songs, written by Luigs and composed by Scott Warender. The good news here is that most of the melodies are assured and memorable, and the lyrics are clever and often crucial to the action. "What'll we do if he makes her his bride?" asks one of the stepsisters, to which the answer is, "As soon as he's through, we'll commit suicide." And when Cinderella dreams of the sort of guy she prefers, she notes, "He'd find it a minus/ To be a Royal Highness." But there are also some mawkish, predictable lyrics: "It's up to you/ To keep it new/ It's hard to do/ But worth it, too." And occasionally Warender's music is less convincing than the delivery given it by this exuberant cast. Danny Scheie's direction emphasizes the humor in the show without ever letting it devolve into vaudeville, and Eduardo Sicangco's many sets tend toward the minimal and the emblematic. But there's nothing minimal about his costumes: From the potpourri of clothes on the many fairy godmothers to the exceedingly ridiculous togs on the stepsisters, they're wonderfully eloquent and colorful and fun. Seldom have I been so impressed by a costumer's work.

There is one important flaw in The Plexiglass Slipper, and that's a feeling of anticlimax in Act 2, as if the writer and composer had exhausted themselves and were lacking in new ideas. But even so, the play's a joy and a fine alternative to the usual holiday fare. It's aimed at adults, but should work well with children who are still learning that theatrics can be magical. If it doesn't explore the depths of the Cinderella story -- and the story is deep, if you bother to think about it -- the show still takes liberties as intrepidly as a contemporary audience could wish.

And it features the spectacular Suzanne Grodner as the stepmother: a therapist's dream, as much as a theatergoer's.

Because whatever else may become of Cinderella in the future, we can be sure of one thing: She'll be working out this particular relationship for years.

Mark E. Leib's latest play, Art People, opens Nov. 30 at New York City's Players Theatre for a three-week run.

Posted on Feb 8, 2008 by Registered CommenterEduardo Sicangco in | Comments Off

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