'Bad Cinderella' review — fairytale reinvention only goes skin-deep
Read our review of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Emerald Fennell's Bad Cinderella, the new fairytale musical now playing on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre.
Before the curtain rises on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella, a recognizable tune floats through the theatre: “In My Own Little Corner,” Cinderella’s wishful thinking classic from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. Webber uses the song as a leitmotif throughout his adaptation, setting the notes to his protagonist’s confession that she is “bad” and “wild and free.” This bold choice invites instant comparisons to Cinderellas past and reveals the depths that Laurence Connor’s production at the Imperial Theatre lacks.
Set in the fictional French town of Belleville, Bad Cinderella follows a rule-breaking heroine (Linedy Genao) who rejects the city’s obsession with physical beauty. She spray-paints “Beauty Sucks” on a statue of Prince Charming (Cameron Loyal), who went missing a year ago in his quest to slay a dragon. This is the most rebellious action she takes throughout the show, preferring instead to stare off into the forest and ponder her helplessness. Cinderella is angry that life took away her parents and left her with a cruel Stepmother (Carolee Carmello, a highlight of the production) and dimwitted stepsisters Adele (Sami Gayle) and Marie (Morgan Higgins). However, she never tries to change her situation, fight for the little guy, or better her society.
The most fruitful premise in Bad Cinderella is that Cinderella and her prince don’t fall in love at first sight at the ball. Instead, she and Prince Sebastian (Jordan Dobson, who we are supposed to believe is ugly) are childhood friends, bonded by a feeling of never fitting in. This choice promises a deeper love story the show does not deliver, as the characters spend little time together and are denied a triumphant finale.
Prince Sebastian feels awkward around the imposing Hunks of the castle’s inner circle and detests the notion that he must marry for political gain. His older brother feels pressured to conform to the crown’s expectations and chooses to defy them for love. The princes are granted an interiority that is never extended to Cinderella, relegating her to second billing in her own musical.
Bad Cinderella premiered in the U.K. in 2021 with a libretto by Emerald Fennell; the Broadway production features additional book material by Alexis Scheer. The book overrelies on jokes about women's relationships to their bodies. “I want to be hot,” Cinderella, who has until now just wanted to get by unscathed, sings to the Godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson, who has nothing to do). When Marie says she wants to look “lean and mean,” her mother tells her she’s “halfway there, just overweight.”
The show’s mantra of “beauty is our duty” is never interrogated; there is no counter, just a bland pronouncement that Sebastian likes Cinderella the way she is. This result is puzzling coming from Fennell, who won an Oscar for a polarizing feminist revenge fantasy film, and Scheer, who made her name with a play about the inner lives of teenage girls.
This may be an unfair characterization of the creative process, however. It’s possible that Fennell and Scheer were never in a room together, let alone one with Lloyd Webber and lyricist David Zippel, which may explain the lack of cohesion.
Musically, the show tries to blend musical theatre and rock opera and instead trades off genres each song. The best song in the show is “I Know You,” a duet between the dueling Stepmother and Queen (Grace McLean, who deserves her flowers). The progression of their froufrou cupcake dresses from costume and scenic designer Gabriela Tylesova is also a treat.
But despite McLean’s humorous victories, Bad Cinderella does not live up to its potential to deliver an empowering thesis. It hopes a familiar story and a veteran Broadway composer will be enough, but at what cost, if its spectacle and entertainment are hampered by misogyny?
Beauty, we may suppose by the end of Act 2, is only skin-deep. So, too, is Bad Cinderella.
Photo credit: Linedy Genao in Bad Cinderella. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
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