Cinderella gets hip

By Paula Paige
New Jersey Online

I've often felt a special bond with the fairy tale "Cinderella." Like her, I'm a stepchild, and growing up, I often felt that, compared to my four siblings, I did more than my share of the household chores.

But unlike that fairy tale Cinderella, I lived in Brooklyn, not a kingdom with royalty - and my prince still hasn't arrived.

Yet in the remake of the TV musical "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella" - presented by "The Wonderful World of Disney" and executive producer Whitney Houston Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC - the chances of a prince rescuing a black girl from Brooklyn move a little closer to reality.

Some viewers who recall the 1958 and 1965 versions of the TV musical, starring Julie Andrews and Lesley Ann Warren, respectively, may be distracted by the multiracial cast of this version. Others, however, will find it refreshing and contemporary.

Cinderella is black actress and R&B singer Brandy. Her stepmother, played by Bernadette Peters, is white. Cinderella has one black and one white stepsister.

Even the royal family is multiracial. A tart-tongued Whoopi Goldberg reigns as queen, with white actor Victor Garber as her king. Their son, the prince - played by Jersey City's Paolo Montalban - is Filipino.

No matter the casting, this is a sweetly scored, funny and well-written fairy tale musical.

You know the story: The overworked, underappreciated Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and two sisters after her father dies. Meanwhile at the palace, the prince, under pressure from his parents, must find a bride. The royals throw a ball and all the single women in town put on their finery and prepare to parade before the prince.

In Cinderella's household, it's the sisters who get the new dresses and hairdos. Calliope (Veanne Cox) and Minerva (Natalie Desselle) try in vain to win the prince, though they're not particularly ugly. Other Cinderella films have painted the characters in extremes, with the sisters usually heinously ugly. Here, Desselle is short and chubby, Cox tall and extremely lean.

The wicked stepmother isn't demonically wicked; she's just mean. Peters plays a vixen of a stepmother. When she tries to connect with palace aide Lionel (a riotously funny Jason Alexander), she gets a royal dressing-down that had me cheering.

Cinderella here isn't dirty and raggedy; she just lives without love. But then a dazzling Houston arrives as the fairy godmother to provide both fancy frock and coach for Cinderella to attend the ball. I was more excited than Cinderella was: With a wave of her wand, Cinderella's braids become a cascade of curls and her rags transform into an elegant ice-blue gown that left me breathless.

Her entrance into the ballroom pushes the monochromatic hues of the other wanna-be princesses' gowns into the background. Of course the prince (gallantly played by Montalban) is so dazzled, he doesn't remember her from an earlier chance meeting in the village.

After the two dance the night away and fall in love, the clock strikes midnight and Cinderella's glad rags revert to rags, the coach becomes a pumpkin, and all that's left behind is a glass shoe that prompts the royal aide to ask: "Who dances in glass shoes?"

Several hundred foot-fittings later, Cinderella finds herself and her lost shoe and, of course, the prince finds love.

By this time, the cast has ably performed half a dozen songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, led by pop diva Houston, with her big hair and skin-tight gown, who laces her tunes with gospel.

Brandy, the other vocal diva, left me waiting in vain. I expected plenty of belting, but only got an airbrushed version of her vocal capabilities. She seemed restrained, as if paying homage to Julie Andrews, who in 1958 had played "Cinderella" on TV.

But I got over it.

And maybe one day, my prince, too, will come. That's why this stepchild will watch "Cinderella" again.