A fresh, feminist take on Cinderella that’s not preachy and that manages to keep the light tone and charm of a fairy tale? “Ella Enchanted,” directed by Mary Hall Surface at Adventure Theatre MTC, delivers all of this, with singing and dancing too, in a one-hour production that remains quite faithful to the beloved children’s book by Gail Carson Levine.
“Ella Enchanted” frames young Ella (played with an endearing blend of spunk and sweetness by Malinda Kathleen Reese) as a daughter of rich nobles cursed at birth by the careless fairy Lucinda with the “gift” of obedience – she must obey any command that she is given, whether harmful or non-sensical. Although her mother immediately sees the danger of such a spell, the fairy Lucinda can’t be bothered to undo it and Ella must live her life trying to hide her dangerous vulnerability. Along the way, her mother dies, a step-mother and two “ugly step-sisters” join the family, and a friendly and compatible Prince becomes friends and then more with Ella, who wrestles with how to make choices that don’t endanger herself or her loved ones.
Adults will appreciate the more subtle humor while children will laugh out loud at the moments of pronounced silliness while learning some valuable life lessons.
The subtle instillation of common sense truths is a big part of the brilliance of the book “Ella Enchanted” and the theatrical adaptation by Karen Zacarias, with music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, masterfully uses humor and songs to present the book’s practical message in a light and entertaining way to their young viewers, with the overall themes being that you should be yourself and that you should use your brain to make good decisions.
Ella’s mother, played by Alison Daniels, is a master of dry humor directed towards her husband, Sir Peter (played by with infuriatingly pretentious arrogance by Kurt Boehm) and she had the adult members of the audience laughing out loud, although her wry observations about what makes a “good husband” went over the younger audience members’ heads. I do think, though, that while the young ones missed the humor, they understood her truth – that a good husband is friends with his wife and cares about more than her looks – and I think that the humorous way that this concept was gently presented will cause it to penetrate their developing minds and take root.
Lara Zinn was fabulous as Lucinda the fairy. Her lovely soprano singing voice is full of a deliberately overdone vibrato which adds to the zaniness of her character because Lucinda is a diva drama queen extraordinaire. She adores fashion, wearing sparkly shoes and a fluttery purple dress wondrously covered with butterflies, finished off with her luminous fairy wings. I loved how the butterflies represented her flighty character and short attention span. I also appreciated how Zinn’s dress sparked the imagination and drew us deeper into the whimsical world of fairy tales.
Her costume contrasted nicely with Ella’s, which was a plain blue dress to accentuate her down-to-earth personality. I was particularly impressed with Costume Designer Robert Croghan who did an amazing job using the colors and styling of each character’s costume to help tell the story and reveal the characters’ motives. For example, Daniels as Ella’s mother was dressed in a gown of rich red tapestry and clean lines, demonstrating her warm heart as well as the fact that although she had to put up with being married to a shallow, rich noble and therefore make some compromises, represented by the luxe fabric, she nonetheless maintained her goodness and honest values.
This contrasts brilliantly with Dame Olga (also played by Daniels, but with such smirky detestable haughtiness that I don’t think any of the children realized it was the same actress!) Dame Olga’s costume is yellow because she’s a gold-digger, which really made me laugh, and her dress is completely over-the-top, just like she is. I encourage you to pay attention to each character’s outfit – there’s some delicious humor in the stylings.
The gorgeous yet minimal set by Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway drew me in before the play even began. The intimate stage has no front curtain, so I got to enjoy the rich green and gold curtained backdrop which matched the painted wooden arches and columns to portray a luxurious royal setting. I admired the antique wooden chair with intricate carvings and gold painted trim, as well as the small wooden table bedecked with flowers and an intriguingly fancy book. Properties & Puppets Designer Andrea “Dre” Moore found just the right touches to create the whimsy of a fairy tale land.
Malinda Kathleen Reese shone throughout the play as Ella. She portrayed her torment and conflict over needing to obey every command with wonderful gestures and discontented facial expressions. Her enthusiasm for learning languages and her wonderful sense of humor made Ella a real person, rather than a princess archetype, and her relationship with Prince Char, played by Javier Del Pilar, was firmly grounded in reality.
They bond over a common love of languages. They exchange letters about real things in their lives and make each other laugh. Ella proclaims that “he likes me for who I am” and that he’s her friend. These are the kinds of life lessons that children need to hear and I love that “Ella Enchanted” integrated them into the story with so much ease.
Del Pilar brought a warmth and down-to-earth sensibility to the prince that made him truly relatable. He was adventurous but scared of orcs (and not ashamed to admit it!). He respected Ella for her brains and her humor and we could easily see that he fell in love with Ella because they were compatible. What a fabulous role model for young girls and boys!
The small cast was rounded out by Simone Lewis as stepsister Hattie and Shanta Parasuraman as her sister Olive. Lewis was truly evil in the most “Mean Girls” of ways when she discovers Ella’s curse and uses it to relentlessly torment her. Parasuraman was the comedic genius of the show. The entire audience was laughing out loud almost every time she spoke a line. She made Olive hilarious as the greedy sister with no need for pretense. While Lewis as Hattie throve on being fake at every opportunity, Parasuraman as Olive had no filter and said whatever came into her head, much to our amusement.
I highly recommend “Ella Enchanted,” directed by Mary Hall Surface at Adventure Theatre MTC, as a wonderful fairy tale for all ages. Adults will appreciate the more subtle humor while children will laugh out loud at the moments of pronounced silliness while learning some valuable life lessons. This is how a fairy tale gets updated for the 21st Century with smarts and humor without losing the charm and wonder that we long for in our childhood stories.
Running Time: 1 hour, no intermission.
“Ella Enchanted,” directed by Mary Hall Surface at Adventure Theatre MTC, plays through March 19, 2017. For more information, click here or call 301-634-2270.