There was excitement in the air during opening weekend at Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson Theater, which was markedly enhanced by obvious fans of the rags-to-riches princess-themed classic. We noted clusters of cute little girls in powder-blue dresses and thoughtful updos fluttering about and taking photos with the show’s backdrop outside. But those same youngsters walked out of the theater with disappointed faces by the show’s end, and we felt their pain. While this dance-driven production has its captivating moments and all involved are obviously quite talented and well-intentioned, the show lacks magic. Yes, I’ll say it — the Disney kind.
With direction and choreography by Bourne (best known in L.A. for his version of The Red Shoes, which came here last year, and his all-male Swan Lake) and music by Prokofiev, this version of Cinderella takes place in 1940s London during World War II, and it’s basically a war-torn romantic ballet. It could have been provocative and even deep but was instead kind of drab and sad. And let’s face it, without a ball, a coach and horses (or mice) or even a prince, it’s not quite Cinderella. Throw a Nazi bombing blitz on top of this gaping void and it’s just not very fun, either. Though the show is appropriate for younger audiences, fans who enjoy the girliness and dreaminess of the classic tale probably won’t be happy. They didn't appear to be on opening weekend. Just don’t bring your kids.
To be fair, ballet and theatrical dance fans who don’t care about Disney or the actual Cinderella story might enjoy the production, which Bourne apparently conjured up 22 years ago to critical success in the U.K. It tells the tale of Cindy and her horrid home life (the familiar wicked stepmother and stepsisters are here but with added annoying brothers, plus her still-alive invalid father). The mistreated sibling is, as we’ve come to know her, a makeshift maid, and she meets her love interest at home — he's a young RAF pilot who seeks refuge as war starts to escalate.
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Ultimately, we do get a pretty cool fairy god-“father” — an all-white Fred Astaire type who transforms our plain-looking protagonist with the requisite magic makeover, complete with gorgeous gown and makeup. The lovers reunite and dance the night away at a party inside a Paris-themed cafe, a section of the show that offers the most vibrant and passionate moments, as well as the best production and costumes (by designer Lez Brotherston). But this singular spectacle is a huge contrast to the grays and blacks and villainous vibes onstage otherwise. The publicity stills depicting this admittedly beautiful part of the show are almost false advertising for the production as a whole.
To be clear, because it’s presented by New Adventures, which is supported by public funds from the Arts Council England, and Center Theatre Group, a preeminent arts and cultural organization in Los Angeles, we expected an ambitious production and top-notch performances. Playing with the storyline is fine, but Nazis and Cinderella don't really groove well together. This isn't The Sound of Music. And there are good films out there that provide a different spin on the Cinderella story — Drew Barrymore's Ever After is one — so revamping it for dance didn't have to be disappointing. Bourne’s Cinderella needn't have gone full cartoon fantasy to entice, but a little less war and a little more joy and magic would have gone a long way.
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through March 10. Tickets ($30-$175) available via (213) 972-4400 or CenterTheatreGroup.org.