`Cinderella': Simply Charming

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 1997; Page C01
The Washington Post

For "Cinderella," it's been a lot more than once upon a time. There've been several movie versions (from the Disney cartoon feature to Jerry Lewis's "CinderFella"), plus a ballet or two and even an original musical for television written and produced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Now it's time again for a pumpkin to turn into a coach and a bumpkin into a princess. ABC's new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" airing tomorrow night at 7 on Channel 7 (as part of "The Wonderful World of Disney") should cheer and enchant viewers, especially those who were not around to see the two previous productions, the first (1957) with Julie Andrews and the second (1965, and still available on home video) with Lesley Ann Warren.

Brandy, the wide-eyed cutie whose "Moesha" series is a fixture on the wee UPN network, plays the heroine this time, with superstar Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother who grants her deepest wish and Whoopi Goldberg as the queen who wants to marry off her son. It's all one big splashy family jewel.

The only ways it improves on the other versions, though, are in the special effects and in the colorblindness of its casting.

This version of "Cinderella" is the most multiethnic ever attempted. Brandy, Houston and Goldberg are of course African American. Bernadette Peters, who plays Cinderella's snotty stepmother, is white, but one of her daughters is black. Playing king to Goldberg's queen is Victor Garber, who's white, but who plays the role so limply he's basically colorless.

And the prince who gives the ball and searches for the girl who wore the glass slipper is played by Philippine-born Paolo Montalban, a handsome new heartthrob who should be finding himself on the covers of teen magazines in coming months. He and Brandy make a gorgeous fairy-tale couple.

Multiethnic casting is commendable. But having Peters play the stepmother is simply bad casting. Peters doesn't seem old enough or act mean enough. Also, Jason Alexander, in the expanded role of a palace flunky, makes a fool of himself as he does in most everything but "Seinfeld." The sure-fire comic relief of the stepsisters is deftly handled by Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle.

The score has been tinkered with witlessly. "Falling in Love With Love," which Rodgers wrote with Lorenz Hart for "The Boys From Syracuse," has been uprooted from that score and plopped into "Cinderella," mainly to give Peters a tune to trample. Brandy's first big number is "The Sweetest Sounds" from the Rodgers-without-Hammerstein stage show "No Strings," which was coincidentally about an interracial romance. But it's out of place here.

At least the story has been largely left alone, with a couple of exceptions. During a new scene in which the Prince is pretending to be a commoner, out amongst the village folk, he makes a derisive reference to "the royals," which sounds pretty contemporary. Cinderella, meanwhile, is depicted as being spunkily assertive and not the usual cowering mouse, which is definitely an improvement, politically correct or not.

The hammy Houston, also one of the producers, has seen to it that her role of the fairy godmother has been played up -- out of proportion. She looks frightful in a ton of hair and two tons of gown and makes a nuisance of herself. For the most part, the sets and costumes are shockingly ugly.

But still -- there's music, singing, dancing and charm, almost all of it lilting. And Hammerstein's cockeyed-optimist message remains entirely valid: "Impossible things are happening every day." Sometimes, even on network TV.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company