Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals have dramatized the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, two 19th century potboilers, a 20th century love story, two Hollywood movies, mid-20th century history and poems by Nobel Prize winner T.S. Eliot, but he has never attempted a fairy tale till now. Bad Cinderella is an updated, revised version of the beloved story written by two female authors who have so far specialized in unconventional young women: Emerald Fennell who won the Oscar for her screenplay to Promising Young Woman, with book adaptation for American audiences by Alexis Scheer, author of the play Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. The lyrics are by David Zippel who previously collaborated with Webber on The Woman in White, from the novel by Wilkie Collins.
The book of Bad Cinderella plays like a series of unfunny Saturday Night Live sketches. Laurence Connor (who also directed the earlier London production) has given the show no particular style and each scene seems to be in a different genre. The show can’t decide if it is taking place now – with its references to rock band Guns N’ Roses (parodied in the song “Buns ‘n’ Roses”), its use of both diversity and inclusion, a female Vicar, its erotic baker, reference to a “spare” prince, and its shirtless muscle hunks seen in the palace gym – or the Middle Ages.
The bouncy music is best in its quieter ballads and includes individual songs reminiscent of ones in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town and Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello!. The acting ranges from realistic to cartoonish with both the hero and the heroine on a journey to find themselves. The choreography is mainly modern aerobics until the Ball at the Palace when everyone switches to traditional waltzes. Say this for Bad Cinderella, it is scattershot in a way that no previous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has ever been on the New York stage.
The title refers to the fact this fairy tale heroine is rebellious and alienated rather than submissive and meek. The show seems to be geared for adolescent girls the way Legally Blonde and Hairspray were. In the opening number we are told that in the picture perfect monarchy of Belleville “Beauty Our Duty” and all the women are gorgeous and all the men hunks – except for Cinderella who dresses in punk Goth and the wimpy Prince Sebastian, second in line to the throne, but now elevated to first since his older brother Prince Charming has gone missing in action and is presumed dead after a year.
It turns out Cinderella and Sebastian are oldest and best friends but they are very awkward around each other when it comes to expressing their undeclared love. Returning to the fairy tale, both have terrible home lives. Cinderella’s mother treats her like a slave and a servant and favors her two natural daughters, the empty-headed Adele and Marie. The Queen is very disappointed with her second son who has none of the sterling qualities of her older one. After Cinderella defaces the newly unveiled statue of Prince Charming, the Queen is afraid that revolution is in the air and announces a ball for that very Saturday so that Sebastian can pick a wife and marry on Sunday. When he invites Cinderella as his guest, she at first refuses but then decides to compete with the other women by going to the Beauty Shop run by the disquieting Godmother. A good many things happen before the happy ending along with a deux ex machina that we didn’t see coming.
While all of the actors sing beautifully, the performances vary based on their roles and what they are asked to do. As the Goth Cinderella, Linedy Genao is forceful but one note and humorless. Jordan Dobson, on the other hand, as the melancholic Prince Sebastian gives a layered performance. Both Carolee Carmello as the Stepmother and Grace McLean as the Queen are comic book characters but have a wonderful duet called “I Know You” which takes one-upmanship to a new level in song.
Sami Gayle and Morgan Higgins as the beautiful stepsisters are appropriately shallow and selfish. Christina Acosta Robinson is the only one allowed to be truly royal as well as sinister as the Godmother, dressed entirely in black. As the three lead hunks, formerly Prince Charming’s companions, Josh Drake, J Savage and Dave Schoonover swagger their way through the first act – and then acquit themselves well as dancing partners at the ball in the second.
While this is an old style musical comedy the jokes are on the level of “Invite every girl in the kingdom. Charge for VIP access” and “The damsel wants to save the prince in distress. How very modern of you,” which don’t quite land. Gabriela Tylesova’s sets for this fairy tale kingdom are a mix of lavish castle rooms and sinister woods, while her costumes are the last word in colorful. Luc Verschueren’s hair and wig design add immeasurably to the fun of these self-absorbed characters. The lighting by Bruno Poet is generally moody and dark as though this were a Grimm’s fairy tale rather than a romantic tale of love. Whether it is the orchestrations by Webber himself or the sound design by Gareth Owen, the show varies from overly miked production numbers to lovely quiet ballads. Zippel’s lyrics alternate between derivative, clever and repetitious (“A man’s man, man.”)
While there have been many worse Broadway musicals, Bad Cinderella is unlikely to win any awards with its bad taste and inconsistent time scheme. Though entertaining, it is neither a convincing satire nor a lush romance. A great deal of work has gone into this show but much of its modern touches tear at this fabric while the touching moments are dwarfed by the big production around it. However, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s legions of fans may not care and keep this show around for quite a while.
Bad Cinderella (through June 4, 2023)
Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.badcinderellabroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission