Review: A Wonderfully Untraditional "Cinderella"

Feb. 9, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella," Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, Feb. 5 – March 10, 2019

In Brief: This "Cinderella" isn’t just set in a time and place different from the 1945 original. It’s a dazzling, entirely new interpretation that deviates considerably from the familiar love story, yet supplies most of the fable's beloved elements, including a glittering grand waltz – just not where you’d expect it.

Leave it to Matthew Bourne to take a timeworn fairy tale, turn it inside out, then manage to wring a ton of fresh energy and meaning from it, while hitting all of the sacrosanct plot points and sentimental high notes that audiences enjoy.

Ashley Shaw as Cinderella, Liam Mower as The Angel in "Matthew Bourne's Cinderella" (Photo: Johan Persson)

The result is an evening of visually stunning and emotionally resonant ballet, danced exquisitely and with dramatic purpose.

Bourne’s first stroke of genius was to set the story against the somber backdrop of a war-weary London during the German bombings of World War II. Outside, there’s smoke, fire, fear, and devastation – imagery that the bold choreographer and his inspired longtime production designer Lez Brotherston invoke frequently, and pointedly, throughout the ballet’s three acts.

This provides both the context and subtext for the modifications Bourne has made to the traditional yarn. Prince Charming is MIA, replaced by a traumatized RAF pilot Cinderella meets in a nightclub. With no prince, there’s no ball at the palace, of course. The traditional fairy godmother also has been shelved. Instead, Cindy’s benefactor is a suave guardian angel decked out in a silver suit and looking like an otherworldly cross between Fred Astaire and David Bowie.

The company in "Matthew Bourne's Cinderella" (Photo: Johan Persson)

The glass slipper is kaput, as well, although Bourne relies on a pair of jewel-encrusted high heels to reunite Cinderella with her pilot in the final act. Some of the scenes take place in unconventional locations, such as the Underground where Londoners took refuge from the nightly terror, Paddington train station, and the convalescent home Cinderella ends up at after getting injured in a bomb blast. The choreographer’s vision is always clear-minded and consistent, that’s for sure.

Some things don't change, however. Cinderella is still victimized by a cruel stepmother and two nasty stepsisters. (Bourne adds three snotty stepbrothers to the family for greater comic effect and social commentary.) Prokofiev’s lush score also survives intact, as romantic and glorious as ever.

[Also read "Ballet's Matthew Bourne: 'The dance I knew about when I was young was movies. I loved musicals.'"]

At the performance I attended, Ashley Shaw danced the title role with effortless precision, grace, and uncloying tenderness. Her portrayal was nuanced, depicting the realities of falling in love not with a make-believe prince but with a solider suffering from shell shock. It was a lot more understated than the theatrical intensity and flash she brought to her starring role in Bourne’s The Red Shoes, seen here last season. Shaw showed that, apart from being a fine dancer, she has considerable dramatic and emotional range.

"Matthew Bourne's Cinderella" takes place in London during WWII (Photo: Johan Persson)

Liam Mower was the other standout as the Angel, an ethereal presence subtly orchestrating the outcome. As the heartless stepmother, Madelaine Brennan gave a witty, brittle, modulated performance, one absent the usual histrionics associated with the role.

As for that big waltz that is usually performed at the palace, here Bourne – ever the consummate artist and entertainer – gives it to us as his grand curtain call number. The entire company is on stage. It's spectacular, an enchanting coda to a memorable night of theater and dance.

"Matthew Bourne's Cinderella," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org