Black Ensemble

Those expecting Black Ensemble’s The Other Cinderella to be a simple retelling of the familiar ode to feminine passivity are in for a surprise. Jackie Taylor’s adaptation of Charles Perrault’s 1697 fable (translated from an even older Persian folktale according to some authorities) uses the traditional story’s framework to comment on modern social relationships.

For example, though usually the Prince is a rather shadowy and remote figure whose only purpose is to charge in and deliver the waiting maiden, here he’s a 25-year-old bachelor whose best friend is–gasp!–gay. The King, worried about the image produced by such camaraderie, proposes to remedy the situation by inviting all the eligible females in the kingdom to a grand party at the palace so his son can choose a bride from the parade of womanflesh. Though the story demands this, our sentiments about it are echoed by everyone from the Queen to the Page, who flatly declares this method of courtship idiotic (“What? Can’t the Prince get no action on his own?” the Page wonders as the invitations are issued).

Cinderella lives with a stepmother who works in the post office and two spoiled stepsisters in their late 20s who have never worked a day in their lives. Continually told that she’s worthless–her stepmother claims to have taken her out of school because “you were too stupid to learn anything” and forces her to do all the housework “since you can’t do anything else anyway”–Cinderella has come to accept with dogged indifference this harsh evaluation. When she’s confronted with the opportunity to attend the royal gala she hesitates, certain that she will embarrass herself just as her family says she will. It’s up to her Fairygodmama to provide her with an engraved personal invitation, Whitney Houston-style attire, a pink Cadillac with a chauffeur, and plenty of terpsichorean skill (“Another myth shattered!” Fairygodmama snaps when Cinderella confesses that she can’t dance). Most important, Cinderella receives the gift of self-esteem, the confidence to make the move that will change her life.

Another nice contemporary touch is a scene in which the recently hired Page argues with his old friends, who accuse him of forgetting his origins. He sets them straight, saying, “Hey, I haven’t changed. It’s you who’ve changed–in your attitude toward me . . . I never left the ‘hood. I brought the ‘hood to the palace!” In another nice little scene the King’s party is crashed by a very Caucasian Dorothy–ruby slippers and all–who is permitted to stay after she demonstrates her proficiency at eatin’ soul food (“But how am I supposed to eat these greens without any corn bread?”), gettin’ down, and, of course, singin’ the blues.

Though the means by which Cinderella rises to fame and power are indeed the stuff of fairy tales, the earthy comments of the various citizens in the kingdom of Other keep us firmly grounded in reality. After cautioning Cinderella to be home by 11:45 Fairygodmama confides to us, “I would have told her 12 o’clock, but you know how we are!” (a bit of humor greeted with chuckles by the predominantly African American audience). When Cinderella makes her curfew dash from the ballroom, one of her sisters exclaims, “She must have stolen something!” Even the happy ending is not without its bite: Cinderella graciously offers to let her abusive foster family live with her at the palace–as housemaids.

Some of the songs in the show reflect the musical styles of the original 1976 production–most notably the wistful “Souvenirs,” the inspirational “Spirit Inside of Me,” and the obligatory love duet, which reveal a Fifth Dimension influence. But the score, written mostly by Taylor and Michael Ward, also recognizes several more recent developments in pop music: a rap number by the entire ensemble introduces the characters, Fairygodmama’s “You Make De Wish” has a Caribbean syncopation, and the Page and his pals reaffirm their loyalties in a doo-wop hymn, “Friendship,” set to the tune of the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me.”

The character roles carry most of the show–in particular, Felisha McNeal as the West Indian Fairygodmama, Charis West as the torchy Dorothy, and John Steven Crowley, great of voice and girth, as the pompous but well-meaning King. Sybril M. Brown and Sharon Dyan Davis make a nice Laurel and Hardy team of stepsisters, flanked by Gussie Taylor Ross as the drill-sergeant stepmother. Allan Louis’s Prince is suitably gentle and silken-voiced, and Sanetta V. Gipson gives her Cinderella a coltish grace and enthusiasm that effectively undermine the character’s usual vapidity. Overseeing it all is Mark Townsend as the mischievous Page, who acts as our narrator. The four-piece band, under the direction of Jimmy Tillman, keeps up a lively accompaniment, Horace Brown’s dance numbers make the most of each cast member’s talents, and McKinley Johnson’s African-based ball gowns make one hope he has a shop.

Though this was my first viewing of The Other Cinderella, the often-revived show boasts audience members who have returned as many as 30 times. With its nonsectarian message of intercultural harmony, it’s easy to see why.