By Erin Fleming
The Black Ensemble Theatre continues its 40th anniversary celebration of its most successful shows by bringing back its most popular show ever: The Other Cinderella, which has been a bi-annual Chicago holiday tradition since 1976.
Described by creator/director Jackie Taylor as a retelling of the well-known European fairy tale with an Afro-centric twist, the show features dazzling costumes, a soulful soundtrack of original R&B tunes and a funny, all-ages appropriate book (there are a few cheeky double entendres aimed squarely over the head of youngsters.) But its real charm lies in its timeless message about community and accepting ourselves and others.
The musical is set in the Kingdom of Other, where Cinderella (the adorable Jessica Seals) lives in public housing with her gold-digger of a Stepmama (the comically brilliant Rhonda Preston) and her bickering, do-nuthin’ step-sisters, Geneva (Melanie McCullough) and Margarite (Miciah Long,) who are all hilariously nasty. In this updated version, Cinderella is sassy and rebellious rather than timid and submissive, and Stepmama is a beleaguered single mom who works a thankless job at the post office to provide for her family. When Preston belts out What’s Fair is Fair about being deserted by Cinderella’s father and saddled with a stepdaughter, she almost garners some empathy and understanding for her plight. Almost. But she’s just too delightfully evil.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the royal family has some problems of their own. King (the comically pompous Dwight Neal) and Queen (vocalist extraordinaire Shari Addison) argue about the future of their son the Prince, played by Mark JP Hood, who audiences will recognize as a recent finalist on NBC’s The Voice. Each royal is given a song to express their dilemma, “The King’s Song: A Little Lovin’ Won’t Cure,” “The Prince’s Song: Soon Enough,” and The Queen’s Song: There Will Come A Day,” through which we learn that rich folks struggle just as much with getting their teenagers to respect their elders’ wishes, and young men of all classes resist being told what to do.
Great comic turns are delivered by Kylah Frye as the Jamaican Fairy Godmama, Kyle Smith as the Page who has moved on up to the castle from the hood, and Brandon Lavell and Gregory Slater as the Page’s friends from the block. There’s a sweet subplot suggesting an interracial romance between the Royal Attendant (Trequon Tate) and Dorothy from Kansas/Oz (Paige Hauer) which pokes some good-hearted fun at both black and white stereotypes, and gives Hauer a chance to show off her ability to get down.
Besides the outstanding music (Musical Director Robert Reddrick and company are in fine form as usual) and over-the-top comedic performances, there are two things that keep audiences coming back to see this show every two years. The first is that every production incorporates topical references to popular culture as well as jokes for the older members of the audience. It’s fun for young folks to see Stepmama and the stepsisters break into Beyonce’s “Formation,” for the Page to invite audience members up on stage to dance to Uptown Funk at the Royal Ball, and for the Fairy Godmama to provide Cinderella with limo driven by Idris Elba. It’s just as fun for the older generation when the band plays off the King to “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” and when Fairy Godmama explains that she told Cinderella to return by 11:45 instead of midnight, because, well, “You know how we are.”
But what really puts the class in this modern classic is the message at the heart of it—behind all the music and laughter there is a real exploration of timeless holiday themes: family, community and that elusive everyday magic feeling of spirit. It puts one in mind of President Obama’s recent remarks at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree, when he said that the message of the holiday season, for believers and non-believers alike, is “a message of unity and a message of decency and a message of hope that never goes out of style.”
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “The Other Cinderella” through January 8, 2017, at 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago .More information and tickets are available here.