Now here’s something you don’t see every day in North Hollywood—the Cinderella story as a “modern musical extravaganza” starring Harry Potter heartthrob Freddie Stroma of the UK, TVLand’s very own (Leave It To) Beaver (the now 62-year-old Jerry Mathers), a teenage discovery named Veronica Dunne (who snagged the title role in a talent competition at a local Westfield Shopping Mall), Broadway belter Jennifer Leigh Warren, British comedian Benny Harris as Buttons (Buttons?), the very male duo of Eddie Driscoll and Mark Edgar Stephens as Cinderella’s ugly sisters Cowel and Seecrest (Cowel and Seecrest?), and “guest starring” a miniature horse named Little Man in the role of Blitzen—all of this choreographed by Mark Ballas of TV’s Dancing With The Stars.

Now some (most?) of you are probably thinking, “That sounds like one hot mess,” but be reassured. Be very reassured. This is the very entertaining L.A. debut of a particularly English form of musical entertainment called “panto,” one which has absolutely nothing to do with what Americans think of as pantomime, but is instead an amalgam of a familiar children’s tale, English Music Hall, pop culture references, audience participation, and enough double entendre humor to make the show as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids.

Though the accents at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre are mostly American, all the requisite panto elements are present. Well, all but one, with no complaints from this reviewer. The male juvenile lead is played here, not by a young actress in male drag, by an actual boy, in this case the divinely handsome Stroma, whom Harry Potter fans will recognize as “Cormac McLaggen.” Otherwise, like countless pantos before it, Cinderella features a pair of “Panto Dames” (i.e. the ugly sisters in drag), a sidekick who talks to the audience and insures their active, vocal participation (that’s Buttons, Cinderella’s best friend), a slew of countless contemporary references and bawdy jokes, and magic effects and transformations galore.

Harris makes for a terrific Buttons, or as he calls himself, “Buh’unz,” reassuring us that “There is a ‘t’ in there. It’s just my accent.” Cinderella’s right-hand man calls us all “Boys and Girls,” spouts plenty of one-liners (“The economy is so bad that Beverly Hills parents have had to fire their nannies and learn their children’s names.”), and exhorts us to “Boo those ugly sisters the minute you see them.”

“Those ugly sisters” are the scene-stealing Cowel and Seecrest (and if you don’t get that pop reference, you’ve never seen or heard of American Idol). The manly girl siblings are a pair of cell phone-dependent, white trash Rodeo Drive rejects, one British, one Deep Southern Fried. In the performance reviewed here, Seecrest (the trailer-trashier one) spied out a hunky audience member named Jeremy (an actual ticketholder) and began a flirtation with him that lasted throughout the show. As for the sisters’ catty brand of humor, one proudly told the other, “I have the body of a 20-year-old,” which got the scathing response, “Well, give it back, cause you’re getting it all wrinkled!”

The authentic panto plot has Prince Charming swapping places with his loyal right hand man Dandini (James May), the better to walk amongst the villagers and find his true love—which of course he does, though Cinderella believes she’s talking to a servant and not the Prince. Unable to forget the “simple kitchen wench from the town of North Hollywood,” the Prince asks Dandini for his advice, which is to try Facebook and Twitter, or put an ad on Craigslist. Fortunately for panto and fairy tale fans, the Prince decides that there must be a ball…and you know the rest. Oh, one more thing, Cinderella’s stepmother has been replaced here by her financially strapped dad, and since Baron Hardup of Hardup Manor is played by TV’s Beav, the Leave It To Beaver theme song accompanies every Mathers entrance and exit.

As for Cinderella’s songs, no creaky Music Hall ditties these. A glance at their titles (JLo’s “Let’s Get Loud,” Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Michael Bublé’s “Just Haven’t Met You Yet,” Lady Gaga’s “Let’s Dance,” Celine Dion’s “Taking Chances,” Flo Rida’s “Low,” and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”) guarantees that this Cinderella is sure to resonate with the iPod generation, though a pair of awesome Warren performances (Whitney and Mariah’s “When You Believe” and Judy’s “Over The Rainbow”) are sure to thrill show queens of any age or gender.

Cinderella’s dance ensemble is a mixture of teenage girls (Linsay Arnold, Tanisha Relnap, Witney Carson, Brittany Cherry, and Bri Tarleton), a bunch of adorable, tiny dancers from local dance academies (two different groups of little girls appear in alternate performances), and a pair of sexy Latinos (Jonathan Platero and Jesus Solorio), executing Ballas’ pizzazzy choreography (ranging from dance club moves to ballet to minuet) with abundant energy and enthusiasm.

Adults who fear they may be left out in an audience of teens and toddlers can rest assured that there is plenty for the over-20/30/40/50 crowd—risqué puns and double entendres that will whish over the heads of the youngsters. For example, when one of the ugly sisters learns that “The Prince is giving a ball” she responds “But I want all of him.” Here’s another:
Dandini: Does he have a following in NoHo?
Sister: No, but I hear he’s very big down under.

The eclectic cast of theater/screen vets and newcomers appear to be having as great a time as the audience. Stroma proves himself more than just a handsome face by giving a particularly winning performance, Warren’s voice is, as always, sensational, and Harris is a nonstop delight as Buttons. As the fair Cinderella, Dunne is a lovely sixteen-year-old with lots of promise, May is once again a charmer as Dandini, and it’s nostalgic fun seeing The Beav fifty or so years post child stardom as the Baron. As for those ugly sisters, the simply outrageous (and outrageously funny) Driscoll and Stephens chew scenery up and down and steal scenes right and left just as expected from a pair of Panto Dames.

Cinderella is quite literally a Lythgoe Family Production, produced by The Lythgoes and Jason Haigh Ellery, directed with flair and an understanding of the genre by Bonnie Lythegoe, and written by Kris Lythgoe. Magic (and there are plenty of tricks per panto tradition) is by Ed Alonzo. Musical director Andrew Street provides live keyboard accompaniment backed by prerecorded tracks. Nancy Severinsen is musical supervisor, Becky Baeling associate producer, John Holly production stage manager, Joel Veenstra assistant stage manager, and Chris Wood & Chris Wilcox consultants.

One final word. Cinderella’s sets are surprisingly lush and the costumes feats of gorgeousness and imagination—all of them authentic imported Cinderella panto designs provided by Qdos Entertainment UK.

I must admit to having approached this particular Cinderella with a grain of skepticism, but quickly found myself wowed by a show that made me feel like a kid again, booing the villainesses, cheering the heroes, and shouting out warnings, advice, and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” like a panto audience pro. Throw away your pretensions and do like Cinderella’s Prince. Have a ball. A Cinderella ball.

El Portal Theatre – Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
November 28, 2010

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