October 31, 1997

'Cinderella': The Glass Slipper Fits With a '90s Conscience

As Disney's Cinderella for the '90s, Brandy is amazingly good. She wanders the streets of her village, singing "The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear/Are still inside my head," with the longing of a dreamy adolescent and the musical control of a Broadway trouper. She goes to the ball looking less like a princess than a suburban prom queen, with ringlets and too much blue eye shadow, yet captivates the Prince with her guileless manner. And after the ball, she tells her dead father why she must leave her stepmother's house. "I deserve better, Father," she says, with a sincerity that rescues the pop-psychology dialogue. "I deserve to be loved." Of course, before she can set off on her own, the Prince arrives with the glass slipper and the happy ending. Some things never change.

One of those things, unfortunately, is Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," originally created as a television special starring Julie Andrews in 1957. In fairy tale terms, the musical was always a pumpkin that never turned into a glittering coach, despite large audiences for the original and for the often-shown 1965 version with Lesley Ann Warren.

The songs are lesser Rodgers and Hammerstein; there's a reason the saccharine "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful" is not as familiar as "Oklahoma." And the book offers a flat-footed telling of the Cinderella story, with no cute cartoon mice or outsize villains to leap off the screen.

This new, big-budget version practically pummels the old one into better shape. The starry cast includes Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, Bernadette Peters as the Wicked Stepmother and Whoopi Goldberg as Queen Constantina, the Prince's mother. Combining Broadway pizazz with a traditional storybook look, the remake also adds three better Rodgers songs not written for "Cinderella" (including "The Sweetest Sounds"). And the new version has a social conscience, with a multiracial cast and a feminist twist. But it doesn't take that final leap into pure magic. Often charming and sometimes ordinary, this is a cobbled-together "Cinderella" for the moment, not the ages.

The matter-of-fact racial casting works so smoothly that it becomes one of the show's happiest effects. There is no cause to wonder why one stepsister is black and one white. The entire kingdom is blissfully multiethnic, with a black queen in Ms. Goldberg, a white king in Victor Garber and the Philippine-born Paolo Montalban as their son. (The fact that this racial utopia exists in a fairy tale only emphasizes its distance from reality.)

The feminist touches are clumsier. "You didn't need my help, you just thought you did," says the Fairy Godmother, sounding more like the Wizard of Oz. "Believe in yourself, Cinderella." Ms. Houston, who is also an executive producer, is disappointing, her performance as stiff as the rigid column of a dress she is poured into. Her big song, "Impossible," is a ditty that wastes the gifts of her powerful voice.

Montalban has an old-fashioned luxurious voice and a down-to-earth manner that makes him the ideal Prince for Brandy's Cinderella. As they sing "The Sweetest Sounds," each unaware of the other's presence, it becomes a stunning romantic duet. Jason Alexander provides comic relief as Lionel, the Prince's right hand. And Ms. Goldberg winningly blends royal dignity with motherly meddling.

Ms. Peters brings vigor and sly comedy to the Stepmother. But her song, Rodgers and Hart's "Falling in Love With Love," is crammed into the show. Her colorful house brings to mind Pee-wee's Playhouse. Yet the ball itself is strangely dull, costumed in drab midnight blues to contrast Cinderella's powder blue gown.

Though mice turn into coachmen, this "Cinderella" uses special effects sparingly. It emphasizes the inner magic of character, self-reliance and love, and sacrifices some of its fairy dust along the way.



By Rodgers & Hammerstein

7 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC

Produced by Citadel Entertainment LP, Storyline Entertainment and Brownhouse Productions in association with Walt Disney Television. Whitney Houston, Debra Martin Chase, Craig Zadan, Neal Meron, David R. Ginsburg, executive producers. Chris Montan, Mike Moder, producers. Teleplay by Robert L. Freedman. Directed by Robert Iscove. Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2d.

With: Brandy (Cinderella), Jason Alexander (Lionel), Victor Garber (King Maximilian), Whoopi Goldberg (Queen Constantina), Whitney Houston (Fairy Godmother), Bernadette Peters (Stepmother) and Paolo Montalban (The Prince).