Two things stood out right off the bat in Nick DeGruccio's splashy production of "Cinderella," which opened over the weekend at St Paul's Ordway Center. First, Cinderella, played by Jessica Fredrickson, doesn't seem all that oppressed by her stepmom and two stepsisters. True, she gets bossed around a bit, being told to fetch this and clean that.
But as played by Fredrickson, she appears more princess-like than put-upon, and it's not simply because this Cinderella doesn't have any of the usual soot on her face. She doesn't look like she has scrubbed a floor a day in her life.
Second, the fairy godmother (Tonia Hughes) who arrives in a flurry of magic to narrate the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version of the fairy tale, doesn't fit the usual profile. She is sassy and African-American.
Yet when Fredrickson and Hughes sing, you see the wisdom of director DeGruccio's casting choices.
Fredrickson has a light, ethereal soprano that she uses perfectly to project Cinderella's transformation. What the character lacks in looks and make-up, she makes up for her in voice. Fredrickson imbues her title character with dreamy longing on such songs as "In My Own Little Corner" and "It's Possible." And she carries the show on that gorgeous voice, making a nice match with the well-cast Jeremiah James as Prince Christopher.
Hughes is a vocal powerhouse whose singing is equally evocative. She shone on "Impossible," in a duet with Fredrickson's Cinderella, and "Fol-de-Rol."
The casting is, in fact, one of many strengths of this fairytale production about going from drudgery to the ball. James' Christopher is smooth, elegant and altogether charming, befitting a prince.
Director DeGruccio tapped comic mistress Greta Grosch for the role of the cold stepmother as well as Andrea Wollenberg and Colleen Somerville as the stepsisters (one of whom is flatulent, the other itchy). All three are tackily funny.
Actors Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr are delightful as the King and Queen. On the reprise of "Do I Love You Because You Are Beautiful," Briggle is lullaby-sweet while Lehr's singing is a beautiful surprise.
The design of "Cinderella," whose lush score is ably conducted by Raymond Berg, is also commendable. Chad Van Kekerix's scenery comes out every which way, dropping from the ceiling and being rolled out to create the backdrops for beauty and magic. That magic, using black lighting, makes for a wonderfully transporting evening at the theater.\