I spent my Friday night at the newly constructed theatre The Round in Nunawading to attend the opening night of NOVA Theatre Company’s latest production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. One of the biggest perks about the fairytales that have been written throughout history and we’ve all grown to love over the years is how they’ve been able to transport you away from reality for a short period of time despite knowing that many of them are the furthest thing from true. The tale of Cinderella is probably one of the most famous examples and it’s one that has been successfully adapted on multiple occasions ranging from The Brothers Grimm collection to the Walt Disney Pictures animated classic and its live action remake to further film adaptations starring big names like Whitney Houston, Hilary Duff and more recently Camila Cabello. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 take on the story is one that in my opinion blends the feel good fairytale atmosphere with a side of realism thanks to its incorporation of the human element and any theatre company that attempts to adapt their version must be able to get this across for the ultimate magical experience and I believe that NOVA achieved this like it came from the wave of a magic wand.
Seated in NOVA’s director’s chair once again was the legendary Noel Browne and this time around, he ditched most set pieces in favour of projections but still made sure that he was able to capture Cinderella’s medieval setting in his creative vision through Felicity Hill and Marie-Louise Wright’s costume design. By allowing his actors to find themselves in their respective characters for more realistic portrayals with a side of fun, Browne was able to keep the energy up onstage throughout the night in his latest comical and crafty directorial feat. Musical director John Clancy and the late great Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score were a match made in heaven as he and his trusted band had the ability to create the posh atmosphere of Prince Topher’s palace and the homey atmosphere of Cinderella’s village through the power of grace and grandeur. The fairy godmother may have been the one with the wand, but so much of the magic was coming from Clancy’s baton through instrumentations that highlighted the best vocal abilities of his singers and the greatest of playing abilities from each member of the band from horns to reeds. By Browne’s side was assistant director Wayne Robinson who along with Julie Wright also had the task of putting their dance shoes on as the production’s choreographers. Together, Robinson and Wright kept the night jazzy and jovial through a mix of character heavy routines in multiple chase and village scenes and traditional debutante waltzes in the ballroom scenes, showcasing the versatility of their work and letting each dancer shine no matter what skill level with the finest of elegance in their latest choreographic turn.
Not everyone onstage had the opportunity to portray royalty but sure enough, the entire cast were princes and princesses in their own right and first, attention must be given to the ensemble and featured cast for their creative efforts in ensuring that every scene appeared more fuller than the last whether they were performing in peasant rags, knight armours or the loveliest of old time ballgowns. It didn’t matter what side of the class divide the characters they were portraying were a part of, they were all nobles who were honourable to the source material and to the craft of ensemble work itself, reminding us that their talents are just as strong as any lead performer. Speaking of the leads, we start with our two heroes Cinderella and Prince Topher themselves who were respectively portrayed by Chloe Terry and in a key role in the representation renaissance, Ju-Han Soon. Terry suited the role of a princess long before matrimony with a heart of gold so well as she utilised the power of humbleness and understanding in her performance and flawlessly captured everything the title character stood for; while Soon loyally represented his kingdom through his take on the beloved Prince who was willing to open his heart to everyone in his domain from the richest to the poorest and representing every Asian performer who has ever had a dream in the process. Together, the two performers were both beautiful and bright in portrayals that had the audience falling head over heels in love with them just as much as they fell in love with each other and they had chemistry that could move mountains to boot. Nicole Rotenstein and Alice Clapperton were both enthusiastic and entertaining in their portrayals of Cinderella’s step sisters Gabrielle and Charlotte as they both demonstrated true love in their own unique, bubbly way, providing us with laughs, comfort and security that cemented their characters’ bonds with lovers, family and even bonds with themselves as individuals. Meanwhile, Chris Stevenson found himself stuck in the middle of the two opinions that were formulated by the people of the Kingdom as Lord Pinkleton, though his worthy and wonderful performance was not one to be easily forgotten or lost in the background as he was able to assure us of his character’s importance to the overall story and his influence over the Prince and the common people.
Some of the biggest standouts in Cinderella were the performances given by JC La Fontaine and Meagan Gaffney who had the privilege of portraying Sebastian and Marie/Fairy Godmother respectively. La Fontaine delivered a portrayal reminiscent of Disney renaissance villains like Jafar, Scar and Governor Ratcliffe through his character’s greedy thirst for power, proving that Sebastian is the show’s true antagonist and garnering him glory as a sophisticated yet sassy villain that you would think was tailor made specifically for him to play. Gaffney reminded me a bit of underrated comic genius Andrea Martin when she was in her Crazy Marie form but when she became the Fairy Godmother she transformed into Joan Sutherland and this was a testament to her performance versatility and dedication to every role she has the honour of portraying. Turning in a NOVA debut that was outstanding and operatic, Gaffney quickly introduced herself to Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit as a force to be reckoned with after many successful years in the opera circuit and hers will be a name that our community won’t be forgetting anytime soon. The king and queen of the spectacle to me were two performers who couldn’t have been anymore different as one would be considered a hero in their own right while the other was one of the most well-known villains in fairytale history and they were Matt Jakowenko in the role of Jean-Michel and Ellen Lane in the role of Madame Stepmother. For his portrayal of a commoner willing to stand up for the underappreciated people of his village while trying to win the heart of his forbidden love, Jakowenko stole the hearts of everyone in the stands in a characterisation filled with poise and pride that reintroduced him as a formidably talented leading male actor in our community able to make any role his very own. We couldn’t help but root for Jakowenko the whole night through despite an almost hour long gap between his scenes and this was a reminder of how our scene would not be the same without his inclusion especially when he gives cherished performances like these. As for her take on a matriarch who thrives on ridiculing anyone she believes is inferior to her including her own children who stops at nothing to secure a place in noble life, Lane was right in her element as a character the world loves to hate but we don’t like to admit that we kind of relate more to as we get older. Despite Madame Stepmother’s folklore villain status, Lane delivered an attitudinal yet astonishing and accomplished performance that was a masterclass in character work as we got to see both sides of the role that we couldn’t resist adoring like the ultimate guilty pleasure and the five time NOVA alumni was undoubtedly back in full swing for the company in one of her best outings with the company to date.
After NOVA Theatre Company reintroduced themselves to the amateur theatre circuit we all love so dearly earlier this year with their simplistic but solid retelling of Ladies In Black, their more extravagant and exhilarating adaptation of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella let our community know that they are back with a vengeance, up to their old tricks and here to stay. The magic of the production did not just come from the Fairy Godmother’s wand, it came from every individual onstage and off through timeless performances, classy costume designs and production team work that never goes out of style in an effort that was suitable for everyone from ages one to one hundred and one and cinematic enough to make the show a standout in the company’s repertoire. Special shoutout to Noel Browne, Wayne Robinson, Julie Wright, JC La Fontaine and Emma Uphill for their tip top work on the production and to the rest of the cast and crew associated with Cinderella for such an enchanting opening night and if you haven’t gotten your tickets for the ball yet, make sure you get them while you still can, support the company and local theatre. Congratulations NOVA on starting off your latest season with a bang, chookas for the rest of your run, have a lovely night and we love you because you’re beautiful, inside and out.