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Theater review: 'Cinderella' falls flat

Rohan Preston / Minneapolis Star Tribune

Unlike the lovely staging of "Cinderella" that played the Children's Theatre in December 1999, the production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "Cinderella" that opened Tuesday in Minneapolis is colorful, but flat as a pancake.

The show, at the Historic State Theatre, has puppet mice, a puppet feline, an omnipresent puppet dove and two high-wattage stars.

Unfortunately, radiant diva Eartha Kitt has too little stage time as the fairy godmother, and former teen pop star Deborah Gibson, who plays the title character, has too much. Gibson's talent is so thin, it could all fit in that glass slipper.

Some of the production's failings are attributable to director Gabriel Barre, whose forced, hurly-burly staging appears to try too hard to be funny.

True, this is a fairy tale. And the characters are just symbols. Still, you want to root for Cinderella, to wish she could get out of the claws of her wicked stepmother and her two squeaky-squawky stepsisters.

The dreadfully miscast Gibson did everything she could to stop your empathy. Her movements were so wooden, she could have been the subject of Madonna's lyrics: "like a virgin / touched for the very first time."

While Gibson's lack of theater talent can be hidden in a fast-paced musical comedy such as "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," her shortcomings stand out in a show such as "Cinderella."

When she sang here, her tinny voice had the kind of little holes you get when you scream too loudly. That might have been because she was way out of sync with her onstage partners, especially the prince. She overpowered him with her voice in a way that sounded less like passion than competition for the spotlight. Perhaps all of Gibson's duets should have been with Kitt.

Gibson did have one way to express desire -- through heavy, chesty breathing. Her costar, Paolo Montalban, played Prince Christopher with surprising skill and poise. Endowed with a rich voice and charm, he sang well and moved with ease. He grounded the royal in such good manners and innate decency, you wanted his bride to be someone good.

Another discovery was Victor Trent Cook, playing the royal steward Lionel. He served as a kind of audience representative onstage, asking obvious questions and talking common sense.

Impressive moving set pieces and colorful costumes provided some relief to the overall flatness.

The use of "color-blind" and "gender-blind" casting, which can ordinarily add humor, seemed tawdry. The prince, played by an Asian actor, is the son of the big-bellied black king (Ken Prymus) and the white queen (Leslie Becker). Cinderella's wicked stepmother is a lackluster man in drag (Everett Quinton).

Royal steward Lionel had some of the pithiest lines. One, used to deflect the advances of the stepmother, seemed apt for the production as well: "The only thing that should be between you and me is a continent."

Rohan Preston can be contacted at rpreston@startribune.com

Copyright 2001 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.