Chicago Theatre Review
A New Take on an Old Fairy Tale
The Other Cinderella – Black Ensemble Theatre
Born in the projects, an ill-treated young woman, nicknamed Cinderella by her selfish, cantankerous Stepmama and her two nasty, spoiled stepsisters, lives the familiar fairy tale that’s been a part of every culture since time began. This is Jackie Taylor’s contemporary version of the story, set in the African American “Kingdom of Other,” which is the title of the rousing, original pop/rock tune that opens and closes this musical. Besides Cinderella and her family, many of the other familiar characters of the Charles Perrault story are also here: a handsome Prince needing to find a bride, his doting mother and father, the King and Queen, a faithful Attendant and a Fairy Godmama. In Ms. Taylor’s version there are also three boisterous young men, one of whom wins a lottery to become the new Page, as well as Dorothy from Kansas, the only white girl in town. The events of this favorite fairy tale are essentially the same.
This was the musical that launched Jackie Taylor’s exciting Black Ensemble Theater some 40 years ago. In the final offering of this company’s anniversary season, we travel back to relive that first production, somewhat updated to reflect our twenty-first century culture. The show is energetic and fun, but it’s not nearly as polished as most of Jackie Taylor’s more recent productions. She’s spoiled her audiences with her typical artistry and style, often telling the life story of a favorite R&B performer and filling the air with song. Simply said, despite some updates, this musical shows its age.
Co-directed by both Ms. Taylor and the multitalented Rueben D. Echoles, the show serves up the talents of a bakers’ dozen of BET’s finest performers, so often enjoyed in past productions. Jessica Seals is a marvelous Cinderella. She’s sweet enough for theatergoers to love her and just saucy enough to provoke the anger and antagonism of her stepfamily. Where Ms. Seals really excels, of course, is at the Ball, where she meets the handsome and equally talented Prince, played with style and spirit by the wonderful Mark JP Hood. The two sing and dance with pizzazz and panache. Providing much of the comedy are the incomparable Rhonda Preston, as a very haughty Stepmama, the lovely Melanie McCullough and Miciah Long as stepsisters Geneva and Margarite. Echoles has a field day costuming these three style-conscious beauties, who keep the laughs coming with their feisty attitude.
One of the finest performances comes from the phenomenally talented Kylah Frye, as the Fairy Stepmama. In this version of the story, the magical matron is from Jamaica and brings so much unbridled joy and delight to this production. The King and Queen, played by handsome Dwight Neal and recent Jeff Award-winner Shari Addison, are very good. Ms. Addison, in particular, stops the show with her Aretha Franklin-esque rendition of an eleventh hour ballad, “There Will Come a Day.” It’s a soulful song that deservedly earns a standing ovation. Paige Hauer is an over-the-rainbow Dorothy who simply wants to become accepted by all the African American residents of this fairy tale kingdom. She does a terrific job convincing everyone that she belongs, especially in her song and dance moves.
The Attendant is created by the very personable Trequon Tate, who spends much of his time frustrated in training the new Page, who’s played with hilarious exuberance by the always entertaining Kyle Smith. His two buddies from the hood are Brandon Lavell and Gregory Slater. Before the show begins, these three young men run all over the theatre, with the purpose, one supposes, of generating excitement for the show that follows. However, they only succeed in irritating the audience, both annoying the adults and riling up the kids. Young people nowadays already lack proper theatre etiquette; they’re seldom taught how to properly behave at a play. They don’t need this example of raucous, unruly playground behavior. Instead, they must learn that there’s an accepted way of showing approval for actors, other than screaming and pounding on the seats. This pre-show ritual should really be eliminated, or at least toned down.
Jackie Taylor’s wonderful Black Ensemble Theater is always a joy to attend. The artistic director’s energy and creativity are infectious and her shows continually reflect this. In her revival of the first production that launched the company’s 40 years of entertainment, we have a family musical that’s a new take on an old fairy tale that’s contemporary and fun. It’s not quite as polished as many of Ms. Taylor’s later productions, but it’s a fine way to celebrate almost half a century of entertainment that’s always a first-rate gift to Chicago.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 26-January 8 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensemble.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.