Your first thought after seeing Bad Cinderella, the latest musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is, well, she isn’t that bad. For better and worse.
The musical, energetically directed by Laurence Connor, opens on Broadway tonight with quite a reputation: We’ve heard it was lambasted by critics in London (it wasn’t). That Andrew Lloyd Webber himself trashed it (he didn’t).
The truth: Bad Cinderella, known as plain old Cinderella during an abbreviated London run that had the dreadful timing to coincide with the Covid pandemic (that was Lloyd Webber’s point when he lamented opening the show then), is a musical that upends and modernizes the age-old tale with an irreverent, knowing tone meant to smirk away the old lessons and replace them with new ones – with morals, as in the moral of the story, that more closely aligned with today’s thinking.
What, you’ve seen this before, maybe when it was called Wicked? Into the Woods? Six? There is no shortage of variations on the idea, and another one’s coming to Broadway complete with Britney Spears songs and a bevy of famous damsels who get wised up by Betty Friedan.
When done well, the smashing of tales we loved (or maybe really didn’t) as children can be enlightening (it helps to have Sondheim on your team) or cool (definitely a plus to have Emma Stone playing your villainess) or, like those old Fractured Fairy Tale cartoons, just plain funny (R.I.P. Edward Everett Horton).
Bad Cinderella has a little of each. A little. Just enough, in fact, to place it somewhere in the middle of the Lloyd Webber catalogue. It doesn’t have the satisfying weirdness of Cats (or any single song that can approach the heights of “Memory”), or the romance of The Phantom of the Opera, or the ear candy score of Jesus Christ Superstar. And though it flirts with the eccentric camp appeal of Sunset Boulevard, there’s not a step-relative who can make us forget Norma Desmond.
What Bad Cinderella does have is an amusing enough premise, an appealing score of songs that please in the moment, a gorgeous set design, performers that give it their all, and just enough rousing, good-natured moments to hold onto hopes that Bad Cinderella will arrive somewhere transformative before Dorothy has to return to Kansas.
Wrong story, I know, but one can’t help be reminded of any number of other movies and musicals while watching Bad Cinderella. Intentionally or not, Lloyd Webber, lyricist David Zippel (City of Angels) and book writer Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) have created a work destined to summon earlier, usually better works – at one point Linedy Genao, the supple-voiced actor playing Cinderella, finally recognizes she has a heart because she can feel it breaking (the Tin Man might like a word). Just before intermission, a late-to-the-story, dressed-in-black Godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson), fairy or otherwise, has a solo turn – “Beauty Has A Price” – that, in its menace and staging, can’t help conjuring memories of Into the Woods‘ much better “Last Midnight.”
Identifying an artwork’s influences and/or rip-offs can be addictive. Is that stepsister’s line a wink at camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Are Cinderella’s smears of under-eye sparkles a nod to glitter rock king Marc Bolan?
Probably not, but Bad Cinderella, as diverting as it can often be, at other times leaves lots of space for the mind to wander. Nowhere is this more evident, or more unfortunate, than in the scenes spotlighting its title character.
Genao is a terrific singer, a real, modern Broadway belter with a voice that has no trouble putting across the Lloyd Webber-Zippel power ballads. Less nuanced in the acting department, Genao is given little help by book writer Fennell in creating an interesting, or even particularly likable, protagonist. Bad Cinderella, we’re told by the singing, dancing ensemble in a big, fun opening number (“beauty is our duty!,” they sing), is a hated, feared and rebellious resident of the otherwise picture-perfect storyland village of Belleville. In fact, our first indication of this troublemaker is some graffiti reading “Beauty Sucks!” She must be some terror.
If only. With a musical here-she-comes intro reminiscent of “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch,” the eagerly awaited arrival of this rumored hellion is a disappointment. Cinderella isn’t so much bad as peevish, a vaguely punky teen who’s alternately pouty and crabby, sporting leather-esque tunics and studded purple tights that suggest the local Belleville mall has a Hot Topic. Yes, compared to the bright, brilliantly hued finery of the other townfolk, Cinderella looks an outlier, but truth be told there are likely to be badder looking kids in every night’s audience.
Of course she has reason to be moody, what with those Mean Girls stepsisters (Morgan Higgins and Sami Gayle) and a deliciously villainous stepmother (the always crowd-pleasing Carolee Carmello). Cinderella has only one joy in life – her longtime secret friendship with the highborn Prince Sebastian (Jordan Dobson, living up to the promise he demonstrated last fall with the lovely, show-stealing performance of “Shilo” in A Beautiful Noise).
You’ll figure out the plot details well before intermission: Cinderella will change her punky ways with a magical makeover – long blonde hair, a slinky, sparkling, girly white gown – before she learns her prince liked her just fine the way she was.
Along the way, there are plenty of occasionally funny jokes, some passingly amusing wordplay, and lots of Lloyd Webber’s catchy-in-the-moment melodies. Among the stand-outs: Sebastian’s mournful ballad “Only You, Lonely You,” the lusty “Man’s Man,” performed by the Queen (a funny Grace McLean), and, by far the best of all, “I Know You,” a waltzy claws-out comic duel between Carmello’s Stepmother and McLean’s Queen. In their plummiest tones, the actors having the times of their lives as their characters delight in passive-aggressive one-upsmanship, each of Belleville’s two grandest dames resurrecting the unsavory, lowborn past of the other. The number is reprised a couple times, and could hold up with another.
Notice, though, that the lead character is not among that Best Of list, and that’s Bad Cinderella‘s curse. As pleasing as Genao’s voice is, Cinderella rarely (actually, never) takes center stage without us looking forward to the return of the Stepmother. Or the Queen. Or the Prince. Or even the eye-popping, lushly appointed royal settings (Gabriela Tylesova designed the storybook sets as well as the vibrantly colored costumes, all shown to fine advantage by Bruno Poet’s lighting design).
Given a well-appointed staging – Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group produces along with No Guarantees Theatrical Productions – Bad Cinderella benefits greatly by its bigness at a time when much of Broadway – A Doll’s House and Parade, for starters – aims for elegant minimalism. Gareth Owen’s sound design crisply captures the thundering vocals – that’s a compliment – of the large singing ensemble, and JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography seems to combine everything from ballroom dance to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation moves. Against all odds, it works.
By the time it reaches its happily-ever-after ending – the musical doesn’t pretend for a moment it won’t get there – Bad Cinderella leaves us both more or less satisfied and more or less disappointed (you’ll think of the loose ends before you hit the exit door; whatever did happen to that we coulda been friends alliance between the good-bad heroine and her bad-bad stepsister?). It’s certainly not the worst Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (Aspects of Love is safe), nor as remotely problematic (or distinctive) as Evita. Put it somewhere between School of Rock and The Woman in White, enjoy it, and hope for a happier ending next time around.
Title: Bad Cinderella
Venue: Broadway’s Imperial Theatre
Director: Laurence Connor
Book: Emerald Fennell
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: David Zippel
Principal Cast: Linedy Genao, Carolee Carmello, Grace McLean, Jordan Dobson, Sami Gayle, Morgan Higgins, Christina Acosta Robinson.
Running time: 2 hr 30 min (including intermission)