Review: "Ever After," a slipperless Cinderella tale

The Cinderella story received a realistic reboot in the 1998 movie “Ever After,” in which Drew Barrymore portrayed the heroine as a spunky, take-charge girl who wins her prince without benefit of any supernatural intervention, or even a glass slipper. The popular film has now become — surprise! — a storybook-pretty if bland stage musical, making its premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse, with Margo Seibert supplying the requisite spunk in the central role, Christine Ebersole taking over from Anjelica Huston as the wicked stepmother, and the experienced Kathleen Marshall directing and supplying the dances.

The musical, with book and lyrics by Marcy Heisler and music by Zina Goldrich (known for their children’s musicals “Dear Edwina” and “Junie B. Jones” as well as some cabaret songs), doesn’t do much tinkering with the movie’s story line. In the opening sequence, the young Danielle de Barbarac, who’s never specifically referred to as Cinderella, delights in the prospect of acquiring a new mother and sisters. The title song is an adoring lullaby sung by her father, Auguste (Fred Inkley), to Danielle, just after he has brought his new wife and stepdaughters home: “When two hearts are joined like yours and mine/There is no such thing as ‘gone’/Ever after, ever after, love goes on.”

There is, alas, such a thing as cardiac arrest, and no sooner has he sung these words than Auguste has died, leaving Danielle to the untender care of her stepmother, Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent (Ms. Ebersole). A decade passes, and the grown Danielle (Ms. Seibert) has now become the family drudge, a virtual servant tending to the whims of Rodmilla and her mean-girl daughter Marguerite (Mara Davi), with Marguerite’s sister Jacqueline (Annie Funke) looking on with subversive sympathy.

Meanwhile, over at the palace, King Francis (Charles Shaughnessy) has decreed that his son, Henry (James Snyder), will marry a Spanish princess, a decision that doesn’t sit well with the rebellious prince. As in the movie, hero and heroine meet cute when he flees the castle and attempts to steal Danielle’s dead father’s horse, only to find himself taking fire from an outraged Danielle, who pelts him with apples she’s been collecting.

Love only strikes, however, when Danielle slips off her humble garb and dons a courtier’s dress to buy back a servant her stepmother has sold. Witnessing the transaction but not recognizing Danielle, Henry is delighted by her assertiveness — and her ability to quote Thomas More’s “Utopia” by way of admonishing him for his kingdom’s despotic ways.

A fair amount of the movie’s dialogue makes its way into the stage version. When the king relents and allows Henry to find his own bride, the queen, played with delicious comic bite by Julie Halston, cracks: “Choose wisely, Henry. Divorce is something they only do in England.” The stage show does ease up somewhat on Danielle’s penchant for lecturing Henry about the proper redistribution of wealth (she’s like a 16th-century Elizabeth Warren) and the right way to rule.

In contrast to the splashy “Something Rotten!,” another musical set during the Renaissance, “Ever After” doesn’t go in for much razzle-dazzle. The liveliest dance sequence arrives at the climax of the first act, when Danielle and Henry, who have been visiting a monastery with a particularly rich library, are set upon by a band of Gypsies. Charmed by Danielle’s defiant spirit, they celebrate her in the rousing “All Hail the Gypsy Queen,” which allows Ms. Marshall to get the men moving, and Ms. Goldrich to pay homage to the vibrant ethnic style of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There are also some stately court dances, but the score leans heavily on romantic balladry, albeit with some novelties. The first act closes with a love song for Henry and Danielle in which love takes a back seat, with Danielle urging him to become “the king you’ve been waiting and wanting to be.” (Still, it ends in a clinch.) Danielle sings a tender ode to her father, “I Remember,” that’s among the prettier songs. But while Ms. Goldrich’s music is always polished and gently melodic, and Ms. Heisler’s lyrics smooth if mostly prosaic, the score doesn’t inspire excitement; much of it blurs together in the memory almost instantly. (I’m afraid the song humming in my head as I write is “Ever After” from “Into the Woods.”)

As a result, the performances are similarly competent but somewhat colorless. Ms. Seibert (Adrian in last season’s “Rocky” musical) brings a rich voice and ample energy to Danielle, but despite her proto-feminism and staunch democratic ethics, the character remains a fairly typical fairy-tale heroine, destined for a happy princesshood. Mr. Snyder (“If/Then”) also sings well and cuts a handsome figure in Jess Goldstein’s leather leggings, but Henry’s moral awakening feels rather perfunctory. Ms. Davi radiates peevish spite as the entitled Marguerite (who, of course, ultimately gets her comeuppance), and Ms. Funke brings wry humor to her role as the neglected stepsister (who ultimately gets her man).

Ms. Ebersole, the veteran musical theater actress with two Tonys on her mantel (for “42nd Street” and “Grey Gardens”), is deliciously cast as Rodmilla. With her superlative comic timing, she draws out all the humor in the character’s sugar-laced nastiness. And while her singing chores are relatively light — a shame, given her gorgeous soprano — Ms. Ebersole does have a lengthy solo in the first act. In “After All,” a paean to the joys of motherhood, Rodmilla reveals there’s a little soft padding around her heart: “What would a mother not do for her child?/What lengths would a mother not go?/There’s a bond that exists between mother and child/With no end to how strong it can grow.”

Of course, no wicked stepmother worth her salt is all sentimental mush. Rodmilla is singing to the motherless Danielle, and concludes her tender ode with a viper’s sting: “Ah, but then again, how could you know?”

Show information:

Book and lyrics by Marcy Heisler; music by Zina Goldrich, based on the 20th Century Fox motion picture written by Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant and Rick Parks and directed by Mr. Tennant; directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Nevin Steinberg; projections by Olivia Sebesky and Mr. McLane; hair and wig design by Leah J. Loukas; makeup design by Brian Strumwasser; production stage manager, Kim Vernace; orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; vocal arrangements by Ms. Goldrich; dance music arrangements by David Chase; music supervisor, Mary-Mitchell Campbell; music director, David Gardos; fight directors, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Presented by Paper Mill Playhouse, Mark S. Hoebee, producing artistic director; Todd Schmidt, managing director. At the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J.; 973-376-4343, papermill.org. Through June 21. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

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