TAG is Off on the Right Foot
As a general rule, I try not to review previews of productions. It is usually the final night to iron things out both onstage and off, and thus the production is not always complete or “show ready.” That being said, I’m not always able to send a reviewer to review an opening production during the run of their actual opening weekend, and thus put in a request to see a preview in order to submit a review. So, alongside a few other invited guests and a group of students from Farrington High School (correct me if I’m wrong), we were thrust into the rough and tumble fairly tale land that is the backdrop for Don Nigro’s CINDERELLA WALTZ, directed by Alan Shepard.
This is the first production in TAG- The Actors’ Group’s ‘19-’20 theatrical season. Shepard has a close relationship with the playwright, who wrote the script back in 1978, and dedicates this production of CINDERELLA WALTZ to another personal friend of his and Nigro’s, director of the first iteration of the production, the late Gary Stewart. If you read your playbill, you can see a note written by Nigro specifically for this run of the production honoring Stewart and explaining some of the finer details of the play, including the confirmation of the inspiration and parallels it draws from Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, which goes deeper than just the names of certain characters.
Set “some time ago” in “somewhere a little different,” CINDERELLA WALTZ is an inventive and irreverent retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. Nigro’s writing is both witty and incisive, with the pace of his jokes being thrown about being akin to a Mel Brooks script- if something flew by that wasn’t funny, you don’t have to wait too long for the next joke. Rosey Snow (Christine Umipeg) lives on the fringes of a small town, where Zed the Village Idiot (Fili Auro) often finds himself in the Snow’s pig trough. Rosey’s mother has passed away, and her father, Mr. Snow (Allan Okubo) found a new Mrs. Snow (Amy K. Sullivan), who is materialistic, brash, and constantly finding every opportunity to put Rosey to work. While their mother is espousing another long list of “To-Do’s” for Rosey, Rosey’s stepsisters, the cynical and guarded Goneril (Traci Oya) and the bright and curious Regan (Michaela Miller) round out the Snow household. Things are upended for the Snow household when they discover Troll (Michael She) in their well, and through him meet the Prince, Alfred (Matthew Miller). Prince Alfred’s parents are hosting a ball to find an appropriate suitor for him, and Mrs. Snow manages to finagle invitations for herself, Goneril, and Regan, leaving Rosey alone. However, she is watched over by the world-travelling fairy godmother, Mother Magee (Ann Brandman), and via some magic and taking control of her own destiny, Rosey might just make it to that ball after all.
The performances by the cast are all a delight, as they all seem to grasp the absurdity and larger-than-life aesthetic of the land that they live in. It is a land of eccentricity, and everyone’s performances (and characters) finds their own pocket of this universe to cut loose. Umipeg leads the pack as the least odd of the fairy tale bunch, but she is one of the most emotive and reactive of the actors onstage. Umipeg glows when she finds the small moments that mean a lot to her character, and shines when she’s driving a scene forward with genuine, truthful reactions to the plot unfolding around her. Oya and Michaela Miller are a comedic duo when together (Nigro writes great comedy and these two bring it to life) and are equally as strong on their own; Michaela Miller embraces her lofty and high pitched self to much success, playfully mirroring the deeply cynical and emotional sides Oya brings to the table. She’s energy is erratic yet fun, blowing an imaginary trumpet every time Prince Alfred comes onstage; his charisma is undeniable as he plays the earnest and well-meaning Troll.
Speaking of Prince Alfred, Matthew Miller takes the stage by storm when he arrives and chews up the scenery in the best way possible; flexing dozens of comedic muscles, Matthew Miller was definitely an audience favorite of the night, but I personally enjoyed his final scene onstage shared with Umipeg, a scene that was restrained, honest, and heartfelt, showing Matthew Miller’s exquisite range in all of three minutes. Brandman’s another powerhouse, lending her sharp characterizations and seemingly boundless energy into the character of Mother Magee, making sure the “fairy godmother” trope of the story was refreshing and exciting to watch. Sullivan as Mrs. Snow is almost unrecognizable as the character, as she brings an odd realistic edge to the stepmother portrayal that fits in this land of subversion. Everyone expects the stepmother to be “evil,” but Sullivan layers her performance with nuance and depth, showing an actual narcissist that is so keen to get out of the life she is living that she is willing to think of herself before her daughters; not to worry, this is not all doom and gloom as Sullivan brings the laughs with the best of them through her over-the-top antics. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Okubo is comedy gold because he can get the audience rolling on the floor with one line and a simple look; it may appear at first that he has to work the least in terms of getting the comedy right during the show, but Okubo’s crucial comedic timing is invaluable and very hard to reproduce. Auro is a very physical actor, and uses this to his advantage when trying to communicate with solely grunts and movements. Even when Zed discovers his own language, Auro plays him with a careful modesty, and the earnest and simple truth behind his character is the exact balance needed when surrounded by a forest of fantasies.
Shepard’s design team also deserves a look at. Kelly Wadlegger’s choreography accents the show well- there is a fair bit of dancing during a ball, after all! Chris Valles’ costumes were delightful to look at, being extensions of the characters they were being worn by. Shepard and Andrew Alvarado designed the set, capturing the front porch area of the Snow’s household well and having a mural painted on the walls depicting the fairy tale land in bold, bright colors. Charles Wade framed well with his lighting design, and his sound design with Shepard worked well to bring the world to life on stage.
This script was written in 1978, and a majority of the jokes still play well. It is wonderfully progressive for it’s time (the heroine writes her own destiny and the story does not conclude on a definitive romance, for starters), and subverts in ways that are creative and fresh even now. Mr. Snow does share one problematic scene with Rosey though- in act one, he longingly looks at her and tells her how beautiful she is, and asks to/tries to (I can’t quite remember) touch her. Rosey, though a bit uncomfortable, successfully deflects him back into the house. Upon receiving this scene, there was a noticeable recoil in the audience, myself included. It was jarring and seemed uncharacteristic of Mr. Snow, yet it was in the script. Knowing it’s in the script, and parsing together the clues of dementia that Mr. Snow is apparently suffering from (through both line deliveries and actor performance), I am guessing that the late Mrs. Snow, Rosey’s mother, looked a lot like her. Thus, Rosey growing older and realizing herself as a young woman, Mr. Snow mistakenly thinks she is his late wife for a brief set of flashes; it also seems this is something Rosey had to deal with before, so he may have been lapsing in memory for a while now. That being said, none of my hypothesis is explicit in the script, and you may find yourself doubting Mr. Snow throughout the play after this moment. Ultimately, you can decide for yourself- much like a review I wrote last season, I only wish to tell you how I reacted, and examine why I reacted that way in addition to why this choice was present at all. If I may spoil the show, Mr. Snow does not do anything tsukebe to Rosey or anyone else after this scene, so it in itself is an anomaly.
Trolls. Royalty. What’s wrong with wanting something more than this provincial life? Nigro has drawn from many a fairy tale and Disney production, and crafted a very fun romp into this land, wherever it may be. Shepard and his cast took this and ran with it, making for a very laughter-filled evening. I saw this on a preview performance, and elected to write a review on it because I felt that the performance I saw was “show ready,” as it were. Appropriate for ages 10+, CINDERELLA WALTZ is playing at the Brad Powell Theatre Thursday-Sundays through September 1. For tickets, click here.