By Colin Douglas
Born in the projects, an ill-treated young woman, nicknamed Cinderella by her selfish, cantankerous Stepmama and her two nasty, spoiled stepsisters, is part of the much-loved fairy tale that’s been a part of every culture since time began.
But this is Jackie Taylor’s contemporary version of the familiar fable, The Other Cinderella, set in the contemporary, fictional African-American “Kingdom of Other,” which happens to be the title of the rousing, original pop/rock tune that both opens and closes this musical. The show is filled with lots of other catchy songs, written by the multitalented Taylor and Michael Ward, with additional contributions from Herman Wheatley, J. Wilson and A. Tucker.
In addition to Cinderella and her family, many of the other familiar characters of the original Charles Perrault story are here, as well: a handsome Prince who needs to find a bride; his doting mother and father, the King and Queen; a faithful Attendant and Lady in Waiting; and a fiercely funny Fairy Godmama. In Taylor’s version there are also three boisterous young men from the hood, one of whom wins the lottery to become the new royal Page, along with “The Wizard of Oz” heroine, Dorothy, who as the only white girl in town, hopes to prove herself worthy of being accepted into the kingdom. With a few clever additions, the main plot points of this favorite fairy tale are all there.
This was the musical comedy that launched Taylor’s exciting Black Ensemble Theater some 40 years ago, and it still holds up as a fun, festive, family treat. In a holiday offering of this revival, we relive that first production, although it’s been updated to reflect 21st century culture. The show is full of energy, quirky characters and simply delightful.
Written and directed by Taylor, the show showcases the talents of BET’s finest performers, several of them appearing on the BET stage for the first time. Jayla Williams Craig is a marvelous Cinderella. She’s beautiful, sweet enough for theatergoers to love her, and just sassy enough to provoke the anger and antagonism of her stepfamily. Craig shows that she’s a true talent, especially with her lovely Act One ballad, “The Spirit Inside of Me.” But where this actress really excels, of course, is at the ball, where she meets the handsome and equally talented Prince, played with style and spirit by relative BET newcomer, the musically gifted Blake Hawthorne. The two sing and dance up a storm to “Baby Workout,” showing plenty of pizzazz and panache.
Providing much of the show’s comedy is the truly incomparable actress and singer, Rhonda Preston. She’s reprising her role from the last production, and once again, as the haughty Stepmama, is hilarious, overflowing with attitude and a real red-hot mama. Preston, a BET favorite, dazzles with “The Stepmama’s Lament” and, as a dancer, has all the right moves. Playing the selfish stepsisters Geneva and Margarite, the lovely and talented comic duo of Jasmine Bomer and Justis Drakes provide a great deal of the show’s humor. Both actresses are making their auspicious BET debuts and will no doubt become familiar faces in future productions. Taylor has a field day costuming all of her cast, but especially these three style-conscious, bodacious beauties, who keep the laughs coming with their feisty attitude.
One of the finest performances of the evening comes from the phenomenally talented, recent Jeff Award-winning actress, Robin DaSilva, as the lovable Fairy Stepmama. In this version of the story, the magical matron is Jamaican and brings scads of sunshine and unbridled joy and delight to this production. The King, played by handsome, mega-talented Dwight Neal (also reprising his role) and his lovely Queen, the lovely, impressive musical artist, Chantee Joy, are both very good. Joy, in particular, stops the show with her Aretha Franklin-esque rendition of the show’s 11th hour ballad, “There Will Come a Day.” It’s a soulful song that deservedly earns a thundering ovation. The magnificent Colleen Perry, so impressive as Janis Joplin and Adele in BET’s “Women of Soul,” is an over-the-rainbow Dorothy who simply wants to become accepted by the African-American residents of this fairy tale kingdom. She does a terrific job convincing everyone that she belongs, especially with some funky dance moves while belting out “The White Girl Blues.”
The lovely Lady in Waiting is fetchingly portrayed by Micah Materre; and the Attendant is created by the very personable Lemond Hayes. The poor man spends much of his time frustratingly trying to train the new Page, who’s played with hilarious style and exuberance by the entertaining Stewart Romeo. His three buddies from the hood are Vincent Jordan, Michael Adkins and Blake Reasoner, and are all fabulous. These four young men enter the theatre from the aisles at the top of the play, nicely opening up the story to the audience and bringing every theatergoer into the story.
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 joy for living. As always, Robert Reddrick’s impeccable musical direction and talented four-man onstage band impresses while accompanying the cast. Evan Frank’s simple, but stylish turntable scenic design allows the production to run smoothly, and the story is nicely lit by Denise Karczewski.
In her revival of the production that launched the company’s 43 years of entertainment, we’re treated to a family musical that’s a new, contemporary take on an old fairy tale. It’s a production that’s glitzy and lots of fun. While Taylor’s wonderful musical revues stand out as her finest works, this book musical is an accessible, awesome way for families to celebrate the holidays. The show is also a tribute to a Chicago theatre company that’s been offering consistently excellent entertainment for almost half a century and is always a gift to Chicago theatergoers.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents, “The Other Cinderella” through January 19, 2020, at the Black Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Alan Davis.