Family Fun Pack season has arrived at the theater, which explains the Rodgers and Hammerstein “Cinderella” at the Olney Theatre Center that looks like a 1960s Rankin-Bass TV kids’ special or vintage Disney. A magical forest is suggested by towering, emerald green treelike shapes that glide across the stage; Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage is a two-dimensional cutout that pops up from the floor.
The picture-book whimsy of James Fouchard’s design is complemented by the fairy-tale wit of Pei Lee’s costumes, which include tiny cartoonish crowns perched almost magically on the foreheads of the prince’s royal parents. The boldest getup is the daring pirate outfit for the evil Stepmother, played with Cruella de Vil venom by Donna Migliaccio. The villain’s ensemble is so delectable that you want to enjoy it piece by piece, from the long black skirt that manages to evoke vulture plumage to the leopard-print bodice and tricorn hat.
Does Lee also get credit for the fine, dark side curls on Migliaccio’s cheeks? (Snidely Whiplash called; he wants his mustache back.)
These animated details may make director Bobby Smith’s production sound gaudier than it is. Aside from the look of Migliaccio and the obnoxious stepsisters — and we’ll come to their roly-poly fat suits in a moment — the design generally has a softness that matches the mood of the lilting score, which features such insinuating tunes as “In My Own Little Corner” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”
That music is the real gem of “Cinderella,” but as of a preview performance the night before last weekend’s opening, the score wasn’t fully aglow. The problem stems from the pit, where musical director Christopher Youstra’s orchestra of six accompanies the singers with what amounts to meager portions of syrup. Surely these romantic melodies can be played or arranged with more dynamism.
The thin romantic wash means numbers that should seduce and charm are faintly anemic or merely nice as Cinderella (the winsome Jessica Lauren Ball) and the Prince (Matthew John Kacergis, a sturdy tenor) fall in love to Rodgers’s dusky waltzes and ballads. Ball, who was Maria in last winter’s “The Sound of Music” at Olney, is likable but nearly bland as she sings with animal puppets and with Terry Burrell’s enlivening Fairy Godmother. Kids will fall for Ball’s sweet simplicity, but adults may wish for more drama (and may understand how little lift she gets from the orchestra).
The performance’s energy is left to the evil figures, and they are handed a lot of very campy stage time. Tracy Lynn Olivera and Jaimie Kelton are the awful stepsisters Grace and Joy, and Lee gives the characters wigs of matching gold ringlets. Strikingly, she also packs the actresses into puffy suits that make them look like plaid life rafts.
Lesser performers might drown in that much fabric, but the wily Olivera (who makes the nervous Grace’s scratching an embarrassing adventure) and the vivacious Kelton (who masters a baroque funny laugh for her delirious Joy) turn out to be appealing clowns. They are also very nimble with Ilona Kessell’s droll choreography in the comic “Stepsister’s Lament.”
This production incorporates material from later versions of the oft-revived and revised show, which debuted in 1957 as a landmark television event starring Julie Andrews. (The latest radical “reinvention” is due on Broadway in January.) The extra songs and dialogue may be part of why the core feels a little diffuse, even with staging highlights that include a truly enchanted quick change for Cinderella’s transformation. Smith’s direction and his cast have wit and a bit of nerve, but the evening never quite crawls up into your ears and into your heart the way a really good “Cinderella” can.
music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Bobby Smith. Lights, Joel Moritz; sound design, Jeffrey Dorfman. With Kevin S. McAllister, Carole Graham Lehan, Dan Manning, Austin VanDyke Colby, Parker Drown, Maria Egler, Willow Grey, Gracie Jones, Nick Lehan, Mary Payne and Chris Sizemore. About two hours. Through Dec. 30 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or go to www.olneytheatre.org.