It takes more than a team of mice and a Fairy Godmother to get Raleigh Little Theatre’s annual holiday production of Cinderella off the ground. In fact, it takes a cast of 29, a band of six, two dozen production staff members, and nearly 100 volunteers to make this production happen.
This adaptation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale is by Jim Eiler and Jeanne Bargy, with additional music and lyrics by Martin Shaw, Haskell Fitz-Simmons, Nancy Rich, Suann A. Strickland, Julie A. Florin, and Joanna Li. If it seems like there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, there are. In fact, this version of Cinderella has been revisited every year for the last 36 years. But this is the second consecutive year Mike McGee, the show’s director, has taken a stab at it, and there are some notable improvements over last year’s production.
The first difference is the use of microphones. While the microphones are only used during the musical numbers, which still makes it challenging to decipher some of the dialogue, the solos are audible. And some of these vocals are lovely. LoRee Wilkinson’s soprano is stunning. Her voice is ethereal, and her portrayal of the Fairy Godmother is more maternal than boastful, which is refreshing. Beautiful and captivating in the title role, Ryann Katherine Perkins’ sells her big number “What’s to Become of Me!” with an intensity that is creditable. Perkins’ radiance and the gaiety of Fairy Godmother’s helpers, played by the scene-stealing duo of Hannah Smith and Rachel Ullman, carry the show and keep things moving.
Another difference is the characterization of King Darling III. Benaiah Barnes’ memorable performance feels more fleshed out and developed than before. Beginning with the insertion of a new song written by Joanna Li for King Darling last year, it is clear that McGee and Li have given a lot of thought to this character. That is particularly evident in this year’s production, as Barnes’ charismatic portrayal, coupled with Jess Barbour’s well-choreographed moves, compensate for some other lackluster performances.
Lastly, the roles of Henrietta and Gertrude, Cinderella’s stepsisters, have been double cast. This year, Dr. Timothy Cherry and M. Dennis Poole who have held these roles for 21 years, alternate the roles with Quenton Hocutt and Greg Hill at select performances. Although this might whisper of a changing of the guard, the tradition of cross-dressing stepsisters for comedy sake prevails.
While Jenny Mitchell and Jeremy Clos have outdone themselves with the costumes, and the lighting and technical directors have conjured true onstage magic with very limited resources, the British panto elements of the show feel dated. Very young children may still be entertained by Cinderella, but pantomimes and caricatures don’t seem appealing or relevant to discerning contemporary audiences, even young audiences, who are smarter than this production gives them credit for.
Raleigh Little Theatre has produced some of the best family productions I’ve seen in the area. And maybe I’m jaded and more critical of this production because this is my second consecutive year seeing it, so I am reviewing it with a more watchful eye. But these kinds of productions, whether done on a community stage like this one, or in a larger celebrity-driven show like the Lythgoe Family Panto productions, are wearisome. Fortunately, in this case, McGee and his team are beginning to put their stamp on Cinderella, and my hope is that they will continue to refresh the show to grow with changing times.