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So Bad He's Good: Joseph Ribeiro as Cinderella's stepmother crosses Cruella DeVil and RuPaul for Shakespeare Santa Cruz's adaptation of the fairy tale.

The Shoe Fits

Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Cinderella' is a huge hit

By Rob Pratt

FOR ITS THIRD holiday show, Shakespeare Santa Cruz turns out a sensational world premiere of a homegrown musical. With a book and lyrics by Kate Hawley, a company actor and resident wordsmith, and a score by Gregg Coffin, associate director of music, Cinderella: A New Telling of an Old Tale is an intelligent and playful production of a brilliant new musical that had an opening night family audience roaring with laughter at nearly every scene and leaping to its feet for the curtain call.

An instant classic, Hawley's script is a delight. Fitting for a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production, it's full of witty and crafty language. And though it's only in verse when the fairy godmother is onstage, the prose lays down a steady beat. Like a masterful drummer, Hawley throws things off-kilter for surprises and hits zingers head on. Laughs are both ribald and sublime, striking a taut balance between youthful silliness and mature complexity and irony.

The songs are constructed with equal precision. Coffin's music is highly attentive to lyrical meaning; his melodies closely follow the phrasing of Hawley's lyrical ideas, complementing them or underlining a point with a musical flourish. Musical numbers are catchy, studied in harmony and structure and flawlessly orchestrated.

WITH SUCH a first-rate show, actors have only to hit their marks and hand out lines with some aplomb. But the cast of Shakespeare Santa Cruz veterans and a handful of extremely talented student actors goes all out.

Farthest out has to be Joseph Ribeiro. Having played assorted friars, fathers and dukes for the past two seasons, Ribeiro puts away the official costumes to play a stunning stepmother (Mrs. Badden-Rotten), a cranked-up, camped-up cross between Cruella DeVil and Ru Paul. She attends the royal ball done up like an ornate oriental dominatrix with brassy red hair coifed into three stacked bulbs and generally vamps as hard as any character in musical theater since Gypsy.

Student actors Nate Larson as a "prissy pants" Prince Charming and Elisabeth Cernadas as Cinderella do an astounding job of rendering crisply nuanced characters from parts that could easily fall into stereotypes. Both are entirely up to the task of carrying one of the show's signature tunes, the love ballad "Someone, Somewhere."

As a counterpoint courting couple, Ali El-Gasseir as prince's valet Dandini and Jade Power as a Janeane Garofalo-like Little Bo Peep exhibit a quirky chemistry that gives comic relief to the tortured romance between the show's leading lovers. It also provides plenty of fodder for recurring jokes and makes an excuse for a fun musical number featuring a chorus of dancing sheep that sings, "We are the sheep of Little Bo Peep/and we are ba-a-ad, ba-a-ad, ba-a-ad."

Any listing of outstanding players would be incomplete without Mike Ryan. As Buttons, Ryan plays the odd-man-out, a character whose only place is seemingly for comic relief or to enact plot devices that smooth over incongruities in a tale handed down over centuries. Casting Ryan in the part was a savvy move on the part of director Paul Whitworth. Ryan does everything the difficult part requires both neatly and without pretense.

Technically, the show is beautiful. Dipu Gupta's sets are simple and effective. Costume designer B. Modern, however, didn't spare any details, which makes for some fantastic looks on Mrs. Badden-Rotten and Cinderella's stepsisters (think Cyndi Lauper meets Peg Bundy). Whitworth's direction is seamless and lively with eye-catching theatrical tricks to heighten a sense of fairy magic at crucial moments.

Though at the opening Whitworth explained that the company has added a couple of shows to the run, these probably won't be enough once word gets out. Cinderella: A New Telling of an Old Tale is theater at its best, pairing age-old European traditions with the newer theatrical form of the American musical to create a show of timeless joy and the kind of fleeting thrill that only comes when a rare work of art captures an audience's head, heart and spirit.

Cinderella: A New Telling of an Old Tale runs at 7pm Wednesday-Friday (Dec. 1-3) and Tuesday-Friday (Dec. 7-10) at 7pm and Saturday-Sunday (Dec. 4-5, 11-12) at 1 and 6pm. Mainstage, Theater Arts Center, UCSC. Tickets are $12-$24. (459.2159)

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From the December 1-8, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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