Wednesday October 29 8:37 AM EST

REVIEW/TELEVISION: 'Cinderella' -- A Cartoon Come To Life

Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (Sun. (2), 7-9 p.m., ABC)

By Ray Richmond

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - Jaunty new "Wonderful World of Disney" production of the fabled story about a sheltered lass and her evil stepfamily is big, gaudy, miles over the top and loads of fun in that check-your-disbelief-at-the-door sort of way.

It's a Broadway show transferred to TV, having far more in common with the 1957 telemusical "Cinderella" penned by Rodgers & Hammerstein for Julie Andrews than the 1950 Disney animated film.

But let there be no mistaking, this is a "Cinderella" for the 1990s through and through, famously multi-ethnic, complete with a black Cinderella and Fairy Godmother. It is a world in which Whoopi Goldberg is the mother and Victor Garber is the father, yet the child winds up an Asian-American. Fantasy, thy name is Disney.

To its credit, though, telepic doesn't go out of its way to drive home the ethnic angle. Everyone's skin color is merely incidental, as it should be.

As Cinderella, the surprisingly self-assured Brandy (Moesha) is an island of subtlety in a sea of broad. A magical sort of charisma enfolds her, and her voice is more than up to the task.

Whitney Houston (one of five executive producers) is another story entirely. Clad in a garishly bejeweled get-up and padding that lends her a look not unlike Jennifer Holliday on steroids, Houston plays the Fairy Godmother as she might be played by Chaka Khan: all verve and sass and overzealousness.

Houston's is a frightening caricature, one certain to send the kids scurrying into Mom's lap for reassurance that the good woman will soon go away.

Yet even those who project their lines like Scud missiles appear to be having a great time here, from Goldberg as the Queen to an animated Jason Alexander as Lionel (the Prince's steward) to Bernadette Peters as the Stepmom. And Rob Marshall's staging and choreography are grandly rendered, particularly, on Alexander's lead tune, "The Prince Is Giving a Ball."

Original Oscar Hammerstein teleplay has been given a rewrite by Robert Freedman that packs in more verbiage and quickens the pace, and three Richard Rodgers tunes have been added to the existing score: "The Sweetest Sounds" (sung by Brandy and angelic newcomer Paolo Montalban as the Prince), "Falling in Love With Love" and "There's Music in You."

Under Robert Iscove's direction, there is often so much filling the screen in this Cinderellathat you're never quite sure where to look. It's a whirlwind of images and activity and sounds, a cartoon come to life. And that's probably pretty much what it should be.

The whole enterprise could have been toned down a notch and still carried across plenty of the requisite spunk. Tech credits are superior.

Cast: Whitney Houston, Brandy, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg, Bernadette Peters, Veanne Cox, Natalie Desselle, Victor Garber, Paolo Montalban.

Filmed in Los Angeles by Citadel Entertainment, Storyline Entertainment and BrownHouse Prods. in association with Walt Disney Television. Executive producers, Whitney Houston, Debra Martin Chase, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, David R. Ginsburg; producers, Chris Montan, Mike Moder; director, Robert Iscove; writer, Robert L. Freedman; cq camera, Ralf Bode; editors, Casey O Rohrs, cq Tanya Swerling; cq music, Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein II; musical conductor, Paul Bogaev; staging and choreography, Rob Marshall; sound, Bud Alper; casting, Valorie Massalas.