Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella: An extraordinary masterpiece on all fronts

Finally making its world premiere, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella has certainly been worth the wait

Starring Carrie Hope Fletcher, Ivano Turco, Rebecca Trehearn, Victoria Hamilton-Barrett, Gloria Onitiri, Laura Baldwin, Georgina Castle, Caleb Roberts, Sam Robinson, Giovanni Spano, and Vinny Coyle

With the world finally starting to open back up with full capacity audiences returning to theatres across the UK, much fanfare has been made about the debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical offering: a new adaptation of the classic fairytale Cinderella, with an amusing and thoughtful book by Academy Award Winning Screenwriter Emerald Fennell and whip-smart, densely packed lyrics by David Zippel. With the Lord himself making news on a regular basis opposing governmental restrictions on public performances, it was practically impossible not to miss the advent of this new retelling of a highly familiar story.

Most elements of the classic fairytale are preserved. Cinderella is still put upon by her two spoiled stepsisters and bullied by her vicious stepmother. Fortunately, with a little help, she soon finds herself at the Prince’s ball and achieves her Happy Ever After. However, much creative license is taken in the intervening time. The beautifully picturesque, but painfully shallow, town of Belleville conforms to a particular standard of unattainable appearance – a wry commentary on beauty shaming. There’s only one member of the community who sticks out: Cinderella. Unlike previous adaptations, however, this is entirely intentional. Grungy, abrasive and moody, Cinderella makes an effort not to conform to what Belleville expects of her and, though her ragged, torn clothing is entirely beyond her control, she still fights to preserve her identity against the otherwise homogenous community.

Belleville is fighting to preserve its perfect image. The Queen, concerned by the fact that Belleville has failed to win the “Most Attractive Town”, is terrified of the prospect of revolution and being liberated of her head. She is also saddled with her awkward and unsightly son Prince Sebastian, second in line to the throne after her eldest son Prince Charming (“so handsome, but not a vain male”) has perished in a valiant fight against a ferocious dragon. Having been close friends since childhood, Sebastian and Cinderella have an easy, companionable banter, which has been disrupted firstly by his new duties as heir to the throne and secondly by the Queen’s insistence that he be imminently married.

Thus, the stage is set for the typically expected Royal Ball and Cinderella’s transformation. The world that is created in this narrative, with the vacuous, image-obsessed inhabitants of Belleville, is highly powerful and speaks to the importance of staying true to oneself. It also eschews some of the problematic ideas of the original fairytale, which suggest that the Prince only fell in love with Cinderella because she was dressed to the nines in a glittering, glorious dress – an idea only compounded by the fact that he needed to use a glass slipper to identify his potential bride. Here, it is very clear that Sebastian and Cinderella’s love for each other exists before any of that. Though there has been some online criticism about fatphobia within the show, it is plain to see from the show as a whole that these attitudes are very much intended to be the point. Cinderella in no way glamorises the attitudes and beliefs of the inhabitants of Belleville, but rather admonishes them as frivolous and vapid. Having said that, there is little doubt that Belleville could stand to be more ethnically diverse, and the book does nothing to craft that into commentary and should certainly be at the forefront of casting decisions when new cast members are brought into the show.

The global premiere of Cinderella was preceded by the release of the concept album, recorded last year during lockdown. Though gloriously buoyed with a full orchestra, many of the songs on this album have changed substantially since this stage of production and may offer prospective viewers a different idea of what to expect from the show. Many awkward, clunky song lyrics have been fine tuned in the intervening rehearsal and preview process to offer a far more streamlined, pacy affair. Although the early songs in the musical “Buns ‘n’ Roses” and “It Has to Be Her” are highly expository in nature, there is still plenty to entertain here. Buns ‘n’ Roses has a soaring, triumphant melody that brilliantly establishes the vocabulary and universe of this Cinderella. It’s a good indication of the tone of the musical to come, and its glorious, excessive campiness. It Has to Be Her is highly energetic, with a powerful momentum that highlights the dark underbelly of Belleville and its attitude towards our heroine, Cinderella.

This is arguably some of Lloyd Webber’s best writing. There’s such a breadth of sound and mood throughout the show, from glorious ballads like Only You, Lonely You and Far Too Late, to the anthemic, soaring I Know I Have a Heart. From the unsettlingly sinister Beauty Has a Price to the uplifting, organ-laden Marry For Love and even a barb-heavy Parisian-sounding battle of wits between the Queen and the Stepmother in I Know You, it’s astounding just how many different tones all fit within this musical – and that’s not even to mention the rousing, marching band feel of Man’s Man, with razor sharp lyrics and a breathtakingly stimulating Magic Mike dance break. As with many of Lloyd Webber’s works, melodies recur throughout, but they are used effectively. Sebastian muses over his affection for Cinderella in a small Bad Cinderella reprise, and the stirring strings of Only You, Lonely You sweep back in whenever the show calls for a moment of cinematic romance.

The talent of the cast is evident throughout and elevates what is present in the score and book. Caleb Roberts makes Prince Charming an over-exuberant, self-centred attention addict, playing the role with a committed, vaguely manic fervour. In the hands of Georgina Castle and Laura Baldwin, the-no-longer-ugly but ruthlessly unkind stepsisters Marie and Adele are side-splittingly hilarious. Playing the pair as vacuous, image-obsessed Essex girls who constantly twirl their hair and complete their sentences in questioning, childlike drawls, these characters could easily be grating, but here they come across as dreadfully entertaining. Their stupidity as foils to Cinderella’s acerbic wit is the source of much comic relief despite their odious ways.

The hateful pair are supported by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s stepmother. Utterly captivating, Hamilton-Barritt steals almost every scene she’s in and plays the part with a camp austerity and a truly unique vocal. Elsewhere, Rebecca Trehearn is a hoot as the Queen, throwing herself into the role with a carefree laissez-faire frivolity. Gloria Onitiri is almost hypnotic as the Godmother and makes a substantial impression despite her limited stage time, with a gorgeous, rich voice to match. She manages to take what is in the book and truly help justify the decisions that Cinderella makes which might otherwise appear a plot contrivance.

Then there’s our two leads. Ivano Turco, fresh out of drama school, has undergone somewhat of a real life fairy tale, his casting as Prince Sebastian proving entirely unexpected considering he’d only gone in to audition for an ensemble role. There’s no doubting his vocal ability. There’s something raw and easy about the way that he performs the music, and his brilliant, defiant dance break towards the end of Act 2 is truly jaw-dropping and unexpected. Throughout the show there’s a definite development in Prince Sebastian as he changes from kind hearted and idealistic to arrogant and cold as the realities of being next in line become apparent. Though not the most natural actor, there’s still a strong sense of likability that he possesses.

Then there’s Carrie Hope Fletcher, whose arms must be under tremendous strain from shouldering several of the shows breathtaking, empowering moments. Of course, Fletcher is an experienced hand at being a leading lady these days. Credited as being the longest running actress to play Eponine in Les Miserables, returning to the show to play Fantine in the staged concert, touring as Beth in War of the Worlds, Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family as well as two runs as Veronica Sawyer in Heathers: The Musical at the Other Palace and then at Theatre Royal Haymarket, Fletcher has a devoted band of loyal fans that she has accumulated both from her impressive musical theatre career, but also from her heavily subscribed YouTube channel and as a novelist. CV aside, however, Fletcher has crafted this role from the early days of the musical, dating back from the workshop at the Other Palace back in May 2019.

Despite there being no conceivable earth upon which Ms Fletcher could possibly be described as “shockingly plain”, she really demonstrates her brash other-ness from the rest of the primping and preening of the other women within the show. The way that she carries herself in the physicality of her performance is dramatically different and, though this is obviously aided by costumes and make-up, Fletcher creates a dry, sarcastic, forthright and independent Cinderella – a far cry from the simpering damsel who requires a fairy to save her with magic. Her chemistry with both Turco and his understudy Michael Hamway seems easy and effortless and helps carry the legitimacy of the pairing and, despite Cinderella’s evident flaws, it is remarkably easy to root for her.

When Cinderella does eventually find herself driven to change, Fletcher manages to make those decisions feel like they come from a place of truthfulness even if that emotional journey isn’t especially communicated within the text. Then, of course, there is the powerhouse vocal that Fletcher has become known for, especially evident in Bad Cinderella and I Know I Have a Heart, though she also demonstrates a keen vulnerability in her delivery of songs such as Far Too Late and Unbreakable, showing her development and growth as a vocalist with a crystal clear head voice that holds an audience in moist-eyed silence. Ultimately, Fletcher just has the ineffable, captivating spark that is necessary for a leading lady and the fact that she finds herself originating a Lloyd Webber musical and joining the pantheon of greats such as Elaine Paige, Sarah Brightman and Patti LuPone just seems right.

But there is no shortage of talent on offer on the wonderful stage of the Gillian Lynne Theatre. The role of the ensemble in musicals is essential, and yet they are sorely overlooked within reviews and often by audience members. It cannot be overemphasised everything that they do, but they are vital in establishing the universe within the show. In appreciation of that, it’s important to acknowledge the hard work of ensemble members Michael Afemaré, Lauren Byrne, Michelle Bishop, Sophie Camble, Tobias Charles, Nicole Deon, Jonathan David Dudley, Michael Hamway, James Lee Harris, Kate Ivory Jordan, Jessica Kirton, Kelsie-Rae Marshall, Georgina Onuorah (who is also Alternate Cinderella, and will play the role in selected scheduled performances), Georgia Tapp, Matthieu Vinetot, Alexandra Waite Roberts and Rodney Vubya. Special additional mention goes to swings Lydia Bannister (also Dance Captain), William Bozier, Dominic Adam Griffin, Leah Harris, Andy Rees and Lauren Stroud.

Not only do all of these brilliantly talented performers show up and perform with all of their energy night after tireless night, but most of them also have additional responsibilities, such as understudying principal roles, which they may be required to do at a moment’s notice. Swings frequently have to cover different members of the ensemble and are required to perform those tracks often with little rehearsal. Many shows involve split tracks, meaning that one person has to perform elements of performance that would normally be done by more than one member of the ensemble. This isn’t just limited to blocking, but also to choreography and to harmonies and to costumes, and is an incredible feat to be able to perform in this manner and still produce an output that would likely go unnoticed by the theatre audience and therefore often does not gain the appreciation and plaudits that are so sorely needed. Especially within these difficult times, in which there are prolonged periods of cast member absence, ensemble members who have to quickly understudy a main role, and indeed swing members who then have to cover ensemble tracks, provide a vital role within the theatre industry, and the vocabulary and mindset of “just” a member of the ensemble is sorely outdated and ignorant.

The sound of the entire production is simply sublime. Sound designer Gareth Owen has done a brilliant job in making the show sound intimate and almost acoustic even within such a large space. The diction and articulation of the cast, and the sound balance ensures that every word within the show is clearly audible and easy to follow. What’s more, the vocal arrangements are gorgeous. The ensemble blend together in a powerful way, and the band, led by the stunningly attractive (and undeniably talented) Ben van Tienen (soon to be Ben van Tienen Goodwin) produce a rousing and emotive foundation upon which the rest of the show can rest. It’s strange that a musical could neglect to appreciate those members who work tirelessly to produce and maintain a high quality of musical output on a nightly basis, but the fact that the curtain descends before the band can earn their richly deserved applause is highly indicative of the fact that, if Andrew Lloyd Webber isn’t going to sing it from the rooftops, then I’ll have to do it twice as loudly.

The choreography is also visually impressive. JoAnn M. Hunter has shown as much range as Lloyd Webber in what she has produced, from a breathtaking, elegant waltz to open Act 2 to the bombastic, steaming gyrating free-for-all in The Wedding Party, not to mention the innovative staging for It Has to Be Her. Bad Cinderella is also nicely enhanced with a frenzied, aggressive energy.

The lighting is evocative, innovative and creative. Designed by Bruno Poet, it is ill content with being just ordinary. As well as using standard follow-spots, Poet also creates dappled sunlight, bright market scenes and warm, glowing interiors. Within Act 2, fairy lights and small lights built into both the stage and the very walls of the Gillian Lynne create a magical, dreamlike effect, making it feel as if the walls are falling away to the night’s sky outside.

Designing both the costumes and the set is Gabriela Tylesova. The costumes are sublime, echoing elements of high fashion and featuring gorgeous silhouettes. Everybody’s costumes look highly deliberate and carefully constructed. Nothing has been overlooked, and it gives a sense of modernity to these period notions.

The set itself is also stunning. Belleville is constructed with a series of collapsible flats, reflecting how superficial the town truly is. Despite the beauty, it only offers surface. The same cannot be said for the rest of what Tylesova offers, making great use of the flies to bring in as many physical set pieces as possible. The church set is also stunning. Even though it only consists of a floating rose window and two gothic arches, it has a tremendous impact upon the audience.

That’s not to mention, of course, the multiple revolves that the Gillian Lynne possesses. Both of these are used highly effectively to give motion and movement to scenes which might otherwise have proved static to observe and, within the staging of It Has To Be Her, they are used to create a sense of urgency and constant motion. Without giving too much away, the Gillian Lynne also has a third revolve, which is something that truly makes Cinderella unique, though is far from the only thing.

Cinderella is truly a lesson in how every element of production can work together to make something truly exceptional. Listening to The Wedding Party on the concept album (ignoring the fact that the instrumentation has changed significantly), one might be forgiven for believing it to be repetitive and unimaginative. Indeed, it’s hard to argue that it is probably one of the songs that perhaps could use the most work, but when seeing it in context within the musical, it is truly special. The choreography is bombastic, hedonistic, sensual and frenzied and the lighting design is captivating, with stunning explosions of light dancing out from the centre of the stage to illuminate lights concealed within the walls of the Gillian Lynne.

The Godmother’s emporium is also a beautiful example of this collaboration (at no stage in the musical is it ever referred to as an emporium but it just seems right). The sound design, which makes all the voices echo, accompanied by low lighting and a futuristic, sterile white glow that constantly moves around both the revolves as well as an electric, throbbing soundscape that hovers underneath the taut action makes this scene feel otherworldly and ethereal; a sense of sinister magic amongst the more grounded elements of the show. This futuristic element is also echoed in the set, with a metal operating chair looking like some sort of sci-fi lamppost. This is contrasted with the brutality of the medical instruments that she uses, again feeding into Fennell’s underlying themes of unattainable, harmful beauty standards. The instrumentation within Beauty Has a Price also helps separate this particular moment from the rest of the show, using aggressive, intimidating electric guitar strums and a combination of keyboard (programmed by Stuart Andrews, another musician whose significant contributions are not publicised nearly enough) and plucked strings. Cumulatively, it creates a sense of unease and dread and elevates something which could have been just alright to something truly exceptional.

Even though I have singled out these two particular moments, this is true of the whole musical. There are no moments which feel like dead space or like a waste. Every cylinder is firing and every department does their utmost to do innovative, creatively satisfying work. On its own, the music is stunning, the choreography dynamic and accomplished, the vocals crystal clear, the lighting varied and emotive, the staging, costumes and set a visual treat, the book insightful, witty and nuanced and the cast phenomenally talented, but marrying them together makes for something that is genuinely extraordinary. The book continues to surprise and subvert expectation well into the second act and doesn’t lose sight of its message. To judge this show purely based upon impressions of the concept album would be doing a disservice to the truly unprecedented magic that is produced on stage at the Gillian Lynne. It is a masterclass in the true power of live theatre.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is now showing at the Gillian Lynne theatre and is currently accepting ticket bookings until the 29th May 2022. Tickets can be booked direct from the box office here.

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