Questioning a fairy tale

Hosted by

Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella” Photo credit: Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella” at the Ahmanson is fascinating as much for what it isn’t as for what it is.

Here’s a quick list of what it might not be:

A musical
A ballet
Typical broadway fare
It’s not a kids show
it’s not how you remember Cinderella

What’s oddly magical about this “Cinderella” is that list could also describe exactly what it IS.  Stick with me.

Matthew Bourne’s breakout piece as a choreographer and director was “Swan Lake” where he famously inverted our gender expectations by casting a male dancer as  the black swan. It was a dangerous edge to put on an all too familiar gender plot that made us notice it with fresh eyes.

“Cinderella” isn’t nearly as successful or radical as “Swan Lake” but it uses the same tools.

Mr. Bourne has taken what most of us think as a Disney fairy tale classic and given it a distinct edge.  The setting is London during the Blitz. As a newsreel tells us as the show opens, bombs are falling on the city and the last thing we should do is stare at the stars: no dreaming, this is a time to find shelter and hide. While the danger of the bombs and the war fill the evening - dreaming is de rigueur for Cinderella so she can’t help but look to the stars.

Our Cinderella still feels like the lonely, abused stepchild but her evil sisters have a larger, more British family here.  They’re an entire dysfunctional brood led by a boozing, man-eater of a mother with a clan of brothers: there’s the young one bouncing around, there’s the gay one, there’s the one with a foot fetish (which, when you think about it, is really Cinderella in a nutshell, isn’t it?).
Bourne’s prince isn’t a prince but an airforce pilot (a fitting hero if you’re bombs are dropping from  the air every night!) and our fairy godmother is a fairy godfather decked out in all white satin.

The only words spoken are in the newsreels, the rest of the story is all told through movement.  You can almost feel the audience grapple with this. You can certainly hear them talk about it during the two intermissions.  Eavesdropping you’ll hear variations of: “gosh I thought they’d talk or sing” and my favorite pas de deux: “I’m not sure it’s really theater” and “I’m not sure it’s really  ballet.”

By the second intermission these concerns seem to evaporate; now they’re wondering: “is this really Cinderella?”

Perhaps that question tells us less about Mr. Bourne’s work and more about the primacy of Mr. Disney’s.  No, there’s not a “Bippity Boppity Boo” anywhere to be seen in heard but there is a romance and a broken prince and a lost shoe.

And, okay, yes there’s also a budding gay romance, an interlude with a trio of prostitutes and a mental hospital with a bit of shock therapy.  (Parents be warned, while this is a wonderful show to introduce kids to both dance and theater - you will find yourself answering questions about what was up with those two boys, what happened under that bridge, and why that guy got shocked by a pair of headphones - all great questions for a young mind but you make your own call).

The magic, for me, of this “Cinderella” is that it asks us to question this fairytale at the same time it carries us away with it.

“Cinderella” plays at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown through March 10th.