Once upon a time…there was a director/choreographer named Sir Matthew Bourne who turned everything he touched to gold.
Bourne brings the signature emotion, technical wizardry, and choreographic brilliance of his New Adventures company back to the Ahmanson with a re-imagining of his legendary 1997 production of Cinderella. Using all of Prokofiev’s three-act score for a Cinderella ballet, Bourne sets the action of the classic fairy-tale in the midst of war-torn London.
Cinderella (Ashley Shaw) meets her “prince,” a dashing, wounded RAF pilot named Harry (Andrew Monaghan) after he suffers an injury and stumbles into her home. Rather than a ball, Cinderella dreams of a night out at the legendary Café de Paris, a real London nightclub which was bombed in March 1941, killing and injuring nearly 100 people. In Bourne’s production, the bombed-out nightclub is brought back to life in a second act dream sequence at the magical hands of The Angel (Liam Mower), this production’s take on the supernatural intervention of the Fairy Godmother.
It imposes the harsh realities of war-time onto the glitzy fairy tale, contrasting the drab colors and rubble-filled landscapes of the Blitz with the escapist fare of Hollywood movie studios. Entering in a shimmering white gown designed by Lez Brotherston, Cinderella feels more like Ginger Rogers than a fairy tale princess. It’s the perfect setting for a whirlwind romance, the unpredictable nature of the war feeding the sense that each character is living utterly in the moment. Here, it’s not the arbitrary nature of a spell and the chimes of a clock striking midnight that threaten to permanently divide Cinderella and her love; it’s the startling whine of the air raid siren, enhanced by a brilliant bit of clock-inspired choreography near the end of the second act.
Ashley Shaw, who shares the role with Cordelia Braithwaite, is a vision as Cinderella, expertly moving between her mousy real-life persona to a more self-assured, glamorous dream version of herself. In her early scenes, her every move conveys her sense of wartime isolation, and we feel her connection with Harry practically pulse out of her fingertips, an electric current running through her body, channeled through her choreography. She transitions seamlessly to the artful grace and charm of the enchanting, elegant woman of her dreamscapes – a makeover moment that is so potent, the audience member I’d only just met next to me squeezed my leg in excitement.
Andrew Monaghan shines as the hero Harry, the Pilot, his physical strength and power conveying more of the stiff upper lip, dashing type of heroism he represents than any dialogue ever could. He undercuts this with a recognizably human sense of desperation, one we can feel clawing at the surface throughout until it explodes in certain moments. Madelaine Brennan is gleefully, deliciously wicked as Sybil, the stepmother – her manic, cartoonish energy playing in effective contrast to the story’s heroes. Because they all share roles, it’s almost unfair to single out anyone in the New Adventures Company – each member is flawless in their physical execution and emotionally specific and compelling in their character choices, a firm reminder why Bourne’s company are some of the most interesting dancers working today.
The entire second act, which resides entirely in Cinderella’s dreams as brought to life by The Angel, is the production’s most powerful section. The haunting waltzes infused with an eerie elegance that captures both the fleeting romance at its center and the more tragic reality of the vibrant lives cut short in nightclubs, flats, and underground stations all across London. This achingly lovely moment at the nightclub, bursting with a “last night on Earth” joie de vivre, is juxtaposed with a more intimate scene in Harry’s flat. This dream turned nightmare expertly twists the metaphorical imagery and trappings of Brotherston’s evocative set to a surrealist climax, resolving to a witty twist on the iconic moment where Cinderella loses her shoe at the stroke of midnight. The set also dazzles in the third act, with the assistance of Duncan McLean’s projection designs creating some of the most realistic rain ever seen onstage.
Bourne never forgets the grueling cost at the heart of his chosen setting, while also finding space for the “Keep Calm and Carry On” ethos that helped Londoners push through. Tonally, the production perfectly calibrates an intoxicating, breathless sense of hope with a dogged sense of danger and despair. It cuts through to the heart of any fairy tale, the moral and romantic victory of the pure-hearted winning out in spite of the dark chaos surrounding them. It doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the luscious, lurid The Red Shoes, Bourne’s last production to hit the Ahmanson in 2017. But it’s still an enchanting fairy tale gleaming with the magic at its center, while also honoring the haunting beauty, horror, and resilience inherent in its historical setting. B+
Note: Many of the roles are double or triple cast. This review speaks to the cast performing on Feb. 6, 2019.