Theater Review: THE OTHER CINDERELLA (Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 4, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Forty-three years ago, the Black Ensemble Theater produced their first and most definitive musical, a promissory note that’s been richly redeemed over five decades. Just as The Wiz opened up a childhood classic to even more make-believe, in 1976 –and now–The Other Cinderella represented playful revisionism in action.

Created, composed and directed by B.E.T. founder Jackie Taylor, who regularly revives this alternative fantasy, it’s a 145-minute frolic replete with high spirits, broad comedy, and good intentions. The fifteen songs, by Taylor and Michael Ward, unstoppably range from pop anthems to calypso to doo wop to hip hop revelry, including a full-out royal ball (“Baby Workout”) that’s as much aerobics as waltzing. It’s all warmly performed by a soul-stirring cast and by music director Robert Reddrick’s four unimprovable musicians.

Ironically, The Other Cinderella makes a 17th century French fairy tale universal precisely by particularizing it: We’re now in the not so imaginary Kingdom of “Other,” a mythical realm that manages to have a West and a South Side just like Chicago.

In all, this beloved African-American alternative to the traditional Cinderella fairy tale delivers an equal-opportunity slice of love, retelling a sturdy tale of merit rewarded despite persecution. But this Cinderella doesn’t believe in quiet submission to her bullying relations. She’s got spunk, the very virtue for which her Jamaican “godmama” rewards her with the usual supernatural encouragement.

Our “other” Cinderella (charming Jayla Williams-Craig) was born in the projects (as Taylor was in the now-demolished Cabrini-Green complex). Her selfish stepmama (irrepressible Rhonda Preston) works for the post office; her sassy and stupid stepsisters (Justis Drakes and Jasmine Bomer) don’t work at all but command their oppressed semi-sibling to “Wash Them Walls” while they vogue it up.

Cinderella’s Fairy Godmama (Robin DaSilva) brings voodoo to her wish-granting and demands that Cinderella observe an 11:45 curfew, not midnight, “because, well, you know us…”. But it’s up to Cinderella to learn how to dance and it comes as naturally as Niagara falls.

Of course, we’ve got to have a 25-year-old unmarried Prince (handsome tenor Blake Hawthorne), the ultimate reward for Cinderella’s just deserts. He’s assiduously being groomed for the succession and fretted over by the King (affable Dwight Neal) and Queen (the well-named Chantee Joy). Prince manages to generate enough insecurity to keep any attitude in check, but he needs to learn patience (“Soon Enough”). (It’s also implied that he should stop hanging round the Duke’s son who’s gay, the only false note in this otherwise inclusive musical.)

Adding to the fun is the obstreperous new Page (Stewart Romeo). Accused of selling out the “Hood” for promotion to the palace, he returns to his roots and manages to turn his homeboys (Michael Adkins, Vincent Jordan and Blake Reasoner) into a palace posse. Even more representing comes from a curious couple–the royal Attendant (Lemond Hayes) and Lady in Waiting (Micah Materre). At the top of the second act they sing “Look At Me,” a duet that critiques the internal prejudices in the African-American community against darker skin tones.

Finally, as if to leave no one out of the fun, who shows up but Dorothy Gale (Colleen Perry), a lost girl from Kansas who’s gone way over the rainbow! Eschewing any Caucasian credentials, this seeming outsider proves she belongs in Other by loving watermelon, identifying three kinds of greens, and, belting to the balcony, knocking the stuffing out of “The White Girl Blues”.

There’s enough for all in this generous outpouring of uplift, sumptuously ensconced on Evan Joseph Frank’s revolving palace and attired in Taylor’s eye-popping costumes. Positivity has totally found its play, 43 years young.

photos by Alan Davis

The Other Cinderella
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on January 19, 2020
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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