By Barbara Trainin Blank
A “wimpy” Cinderella who needs a prince to save her as opposed to one who stands on her own two feet – even if she does try on shoes?
Not likely these days.
In the new staging of the beloved fairy tale at Imagination Stage, for example, the smitten prince and Cinderella do fall in love – but they also engage in swordfights.
Children’s shows at the Bethesda-based theater are always about more than entertainment. They love to make a point and send a message. Imagination Stage offers classes taught by and theater productions by professional actors and artists. It also commissions new works for children every year.
Knowing that larger-than-usual audiences flock to Imagination Stage around holiday time, and how much they love the story in all its permutations, Kathryn Chase Byer, its associate artistic director and director of “Cinderella,” wanted the main character to be “less of a doormat and for her to stand up for herself.”
Imagination Stage had considered Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version, which first was broadcast on CBS television on March 31, 1957, as a vehicle for Julie Andrews, in the title role. More than a million viewers watched it.
Since then, the production by the famed creators of musicals has seen several TV remakes, a Broadway production and several revivals. Currently the show is on tour.
“I read the script, and it’s old-fashioned,” said Chase Byer. “I love the songs, and I know people love it, so I struggled with that. “
Ultimately, though, Imagination Stage was looking to present the story “in a new way.” Make that, more contemporary.
The theater chose an adaptation and script from the 1990s by Alyn Cardarelli, co-founder and executive director of Emerald City Theatre in Chicago – with music by Steve Goers.
“Cardarelli made ‘Cinderella’ the story of a very innocent, naive young girl abused by the stepmother,” Chase Byer said – but not in the usual way. “She’s not allowed to have shoes, because, the stepmother said, her feet are too small.”
At the same time, Chase Byer added, the production – only about 70 minutes long, so very accessible to children – is “very funny and farcical.” There are no mice, but it includes a ‘wisecracking rat, chase sequences and comic routines.”
On the serious side, though, the director referenced the “psychological truth” that psychologist Bruno Bettelheim analyzed in his book “The Uses of Enchantment” – that the Cinderella story speaks to sibling rivalry in general; that even in happy families, children often see themselves as “less than” because of family dynamics.
“We all grow up thinking that maybe we’re not attractive,” Chase Byer said.
Tracy Lynn Olivera, who plays the Fairy Godmother, performed in a few productions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and “loves” it. But she does agree its protagonist is “sort of helpless” and admires Imagination Stage’s “great nontraditional production, which is way less about princesses getting rescued.”
Olivera said she also is excited about the nontraditional casting, which she believes many kids in the audience will relate to.
This is Olivera’s second show at Imagination Station, and she was eager to work with Chase Byer again.
“I would have taken any role,” she said.
A further motivation is that Olivera’s onstage with husband Evan Casey, the Stepmother who looks “like an actual woman.” “He’s my favorite person to work with,” she said.
The actor said she doesn’t want to give away too much, except that her Fairy Godmother is a little “nontraditional” – morphing from a silver bird to a human.
The production is best for ages four and older. Awa Sal Secka stars as Cinderella, and Jay Frisby is Prince Jason.
“Cinderella” runs through Jan. 6 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda.
For tickets, call 301-280-1660. For more information, visit imaginationstage.org.