'Cinderella, Enchanted' Casts a Spell With Empowering Message

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Mischievous pixies, handfuls of glitter - er, I mean fairy dust - and a pumpkin carriage soared overhead Berkeley Playhouse's bewildered young audience on opening night last Saturday. Opting for a more whimsical interpretation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein made-for-TV musical, the Playhouse's production of "Cinderella, Enchanted" at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts certainly captured the musical's "enchanted" aspect. Flamboyant costumes and cartoon characterization caught the attention of the youngsters, as an updated script delivered a less conventional tale of rags to riches.

In the uplifting "Impossible; It's Possible" number, Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother sing that "the world is full of zanies and fools," a line that embodies the spirit of the production. Each actor's performance was at least a little lighthearted and comical, some being downright ridiculous. The absurdity of the characters seemed to vary proportionately with the absurdity of their outfits, which ranged from neutral-colored period clothing to iridescent rave-chic spandex. This was in part an attempt to entertain the three to six-year-old audience but it also seemed to convey a lesson to these kids: Don't be afraid to be yourself, no matter how wacky that self may be.

The host of pastel taffeta dresses sported by audience members suggested that these children have been raised on the same Disney cartoon princesses that their parents were. Thus, it was refreshing to see the Playhouse's production stray from the "damsel in distress" archetype perpetuated by these films and instead encourage female empowerment. Actress Rebecca Pingree portrays a sassier, more assertive Cinderella, certainly not the fair maiden waiting hopelessly for her true love.

In fact, it is the evil stepmother and stepsisters who waste away in their own dreams of marrying into royalty. The stepmother, played by Mary Gibboney, emphasizes the importance of beauty and status and reminds her daughters that "money does not grow on trees, it is inherited." By allying these values with the easily identifiable "bad guy," the production pokes fun at materialism rather than glorifying it.

While the original "Cinderella, Enchanted" script tells children that anything is possible so long as you patiently wait for it, this version teaches them that your dreams will never come true unless you actively seek them out. The Fairy Godmother, played by Frenchie Davis, doesn't fawn over Cinderella and promise to make her a beautiful princess. Instead, she refuses to help her until she stops moping and decides to take fate into her own hands. She also stresses the insignificance of physical beauty, telling Cinderella that looks are beyond our control and are therefore not an appropriate basis for judgment.

Playful smirks or nods between cast members indicated that they are all very close-knit and actually added a sense of realism to the characters being portrayed. Though children in the audience probably weren't analyzing the social implications of the production, this camaraderie along with subtle messages of self-reliance and self-respect transformed the production into a warm celebration of community.

Throw fairy dust at Erin at [email protected]

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