In Imagination Stage's amiable bilingual variation on the Cinderella story, "Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans," the title character is a grade school girl from Puerto Rico. Cinderella, who's also called Cenicienta (Spanish for Cinderella) by some characters in Karen Zacarias's play for children, travels to Pumpkin Grove Elementary School in the United States as an exchange student.
There she encounters surprising prejudice and shabby treatment from Rosa, the daughter in her host family. Since she's Cinderella's age, Rosa ought to be the new girl's friend and guide in a new environment. Instead she becomes Cinderella's jealous "stepsister," speaking ill of her to others and forcing her to do unfair chores -- only this time Cinderella has to clean out Rosa's locker, not scrub the scullery floor.
Zacarias's script reimagines not only the setting but also the events of the traditional plot. Her version unfolds mostly from Rosa's point of view, because it's she who needs a touch of magic to cure her bad attitude. Rosa has Puerto Rican roots but speaks no Spanish and has no curiosity about her cultural heritage -- in fact, she's rather embarrassed by it. Instead, she's obsessed with being "cool" and winning an upcoming basketball tournament.
Every February, Imagination Stage, the professional performance arm of the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, offers a children's play with multicultural themes. Cynics may wince at the preachiness implicit in such good intentions. Yet Zacarias has a light touch. And she's working within a genre -- fairy tales -- that already has a tradition of moral suasion.
She uses humor expertly. A fairy godfather-in-training is the engine behind Rosa's transformation into a better person. Mando Alvarado plays him with panache as a beaming, mischievous fellow in a panama hat. He uses a remote control instead of a wand, and he can freeze the other actors in their tracks. He checks in with his wife, an accredited fairy godmother, by cell phone while she vacations at a spa. He also checks his reference book, "Fairy Godparenting for Dummies."
Zacarias creates recognizable everyday situations to reel in her young audience. The "ball" at the climax is a girls' basketball faceoff in front of Coach Prince (get it?). Athletic shoes replace the glass slipper. Songs by Deborah Wicks La Puma, in salsa, hip-hop and traditional musical theater styles, add grace notes and drive the message home in cheerful bursts.
At Saturday's matinee, tots sat cross-legged on the carpet in front of the stage (adults and older kids take to the chairs behind the little ones in the White Flint Mall venue). They freely offered their opinions when the actors talked to them and observed the proceedings with rapt attention when the actors retreated behind the "fourth wall."
Like Alvarado, Ricardo Frederick Evans is a standout; he plays Rosa's best friend, Joey. Flummoxed at first by Rosa's unkindness toward Cinderella, Joey finally stands up for what's right. Evans plays Joey as a sweet, energetic, nonstop 10-year-old and never seems like an older actor mugging around at being a kid.
Patricia Penn throws herself into the role of Rosa, playing a rambunctious, supremely confident grade school kid with ponytail-tossing verve. She doesn't soft-pedal her character's wrongheadedness, either. As Cinderella/Cenicienta, Michelle Vignoli has a winning presence, but her singing and acting seem timid.
The hour-long show felt underrehearsed Saturday, but only in a way that older audiences would likely notice. Alvarado and Evans seemed at times to be singing out of their ranges and occasionally had trouble finding the key. A piece of scenery wouldn't roll up as planned. Rough edges, all.
These quibbles will likely be ironed out early in the run, but even if they aren't, "Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans" won't fail to engage children.
Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans at Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts Imagination Stage in White Flint Mall through March 30, Saturdays and Sundays at 12:30 and 3 p.m. It runs about an hour and is fine for both kindergartners and older grade-schoolers. Call 301-881-5106 or visit www.imaginationstage.org