Matthew Bourne’s stunning new production of Cinderella announces its glamour and drama even before the curtain rises. The audience is treated to a backdrop featuring a glittering blue slipper, bright against a dark background of London’s demolished skyline, with the sound of circling warplanes overhead. The pre-performance taste hints at the show to come, a darkly beautiful marvel.
Like other of Bourne’s productions, performed by his dance troupe, New Adventures, his adaptation of Cinderella is panoramic in scope, feeling and production values. It can feel like live-action cinema, complete with sparkling screen titles. Far from the Disney fairytale, a newsreel showing London during the blitz locates our story in 1940s London, and the deadly realities of World War II. The melancholy of the time period communicates itself through our first glimpse of Cinderella’s home; both set and costuming (costumes by Lez Brotherston) is a delicate study in gray.
The performances are anything but. Cinderella (Cordelia Braithwaite) shares the home with her beloved, wheelchair-bound father (Alan Vincent), as well as a sultry stepmother (Anjali Mehra) and set of frustrating step-siblings. Expected to be subservient to her family, our lively heroine seems to dream of something more. A distraction from the dangers of war arrives in the form of invitations to a dance; at least, for everyone but her. She is crushed, until the arrival of a silk-suited Angel (Paris Fitzpatrick) – her own fairy godmother – and a chance encounter with a wounded pilot (Andrew Monaghan), compel her to venture into the dangerous landscape outside.
Like Bourne’s version of “The Red Shoes,” also staged at the Kennedy Center last year, this production borrows from the themes and aesthetics of 1940s cinema. Bourne cites such influences as the films “The Bishop’s Wife” and the World War II-set film “Waterloo Bridge.” Joan Crawford’s characters, with their glamour and sexual dissatisfaction, serve as the model for Cinderella’s wonderfully wicked stepmother. This “Cinderella” mirrors the gorgeous romance of these influences, without being sentimental.
…a darkly beautiful marvel.
Cordelia Braithwaite’s Cinderella centers the production, showcasing the character’s loneliness and desire to love and be loved. An early scene that finds her dancing with a tailor’s mannequin, in lieu of a real beau, is both maudlin and charming. Set during such a desperate time, the story focuses less on the character’s domestic oppression (she does minimal housework), and more on her alienation and desire for connection.
That potential connection comes with her wounded pilot, Harry, played with sensitive vulnerability by Andrew Monaghan. The couple’s chemistry is compelling, and the soaring romance plays out against truly stunning sets. Their second-Act pas de deux, danced lovingly after their first night together, and illuminated by the rosy dawn light (lighting by Neil Austin), is set against the broken city skyline (sets by Lez Brotherston). The tableau serves as a darkly vivid reminder of the heightened emotions, and heightened stakes, of wartime romance.
Paris Fitzpatrick as Cinderella’s Angel is a unique and mesmerizing interpretation of the fairy godmother. Sliding out of the shadows, he appears to be a mostly-invisible supernatural matchmaker and caretaker. In a show featuring a catholic mix of dance styles, his unconventional choreography singles him out as he flits through scene after scene, controlling and nudging the action forward.
Though the show’s setting may be dark, it makes the entertainment shine that much brighter. The dream-like dance sequence of the second half, set in the glittering Café du Paris, is a high point in a show of exquisite set pieces. A wry sensibility and off-center humor flow throughout, counterbalancing the story’s intensity (as when a shoe fetishist becomes attracted to Cinderella’s glittering heels).
Prokofiev’s swelling score, slightly tailored to this incarnation of the ballet, provides perfect accompaniment to the dramatic action, especially when the music’s brash booms stand in for actual bomb blasts. The use of surround sound adds to the immersive, cinematic quality of the production.
Our heroine and her pilot’s brief separation after the dance is followed by a desperate search, an eventual reunion and a happy ever after. All in all, it’s not the storybook version, and all the more enchanting for it.
Running Time: Acts One, Two and Three last approximately 40 minutes each, with two 15-minute intervals between One and Two.
Advisory: The production uses strobe lights, smoke effects
“Cinderella” runs through Jan. 20 at the Kennedy Center. For tickets or more information, click here.