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Dobama Theatre’s ‘Ella Enchanted’ casts a visual spell but falls short of pure magic

December 5, 2018

Dobama Theatre’s ‘Ella Enchanted’ casts a visual spell but falls short of pure magic

CLEVELAND, Ohio – “Ella Enchanted,” a new musical twist on the old Cinderella story making its regional premiere at Dobama Theatre, wears its feminist bona fides on its pretty, puffy sleeves.

When she is a babe in the crib, Ella is visited by Fairy Godmother Lucinda (Tina Stump), who, tired of hearing the child’s bawling, “gifts” Ella with perfect obedience, then commands her to shut up.

What a good wife she’ll one day make, Lucinda observes. Ella’s woke mother (Amy Fritsche) knows the gift is a curse.

As Ella (Natalie Green) grows, though she tries to resist Lucinda’s spell, she’s just a girl who can’t say “no.” When people tell her to stand she stands; when they instruct her to sit, she sits. Etc. (The mind reels at the possibilities of a porn parody.)

Ella’s mother vows to be guardian of her secret and commands her to tell no one that she is the most obedient girl in the world – including her much absent, clueless father (Eugene Sumlin) – lest they exploit her condition.

When Daddy comes home and announces he hopes to marry a tender-age Ella off to a rich suitor, she’ll have no choice but to submit.

“Ella has so much growing and learning to do,” mother says.

“Nonsense,” he responds. “Being a wife is easy. All you must do is be pretty!”

But Mama revolts: “A husband should be Ella’s equal and her friend!” The line is yet another signal that this land of Frell is both mythical and far from Grimm territory, where women will saw off a toe here, a bit of heel there, to jam their feet into lost slippers proffered by a prince.

This being a fairy tale, perhaps the unkindest genre to parents of all time, Ella’s mother dies suddenly, throwing our compliant heroine into the hands of fickle fate.

Daddy remarries with unseemly speed. His new wife is fortune hunter Olga (also played by Fritsche) who treats Ella like the help. So do Olga’s awful daughters Hattie (Kelly E. Smith) and Olive (Neely Gevaart).

The terrible twosome, inhabited with relish by Smith and Gevvart, quickly discover that ordering Ella to burp, fart or hand over the emerald necklace her late mother bequeathed her is super fun, like pulling the wings off flies. Also fun? Plotting to land Prince Charmont, (Joshua McElroy), “Char” for short, and spend his money. Naturally, he prefers Ella, an autodidact who speaks Eflian, among a host of other languages.

As these mini terrors and Meghan Markle know, landing a prince is the ultimate prize. At the finishing school where Ella and her tormenters are shuffled off to, they learn poise and polish with one aim in mind – “the best hope in life is to marry well.”

Not Ella; at least before intermission, her best hope is to find Lucinda and beg her to reverse that stupid sadistic spell.

I’m all for rewriting fables to promote girl power and parents of budding Bella Abzugs may well feel a righteous glow for exposing their girls to the healthy messaging throughout. (Another unspoken lesson worth absorbing is in the multi-racial casting that subtly argues station and love know no color.)

For those of us with no impressionable darlings in tow, however, there’s less reason to be there. The gags are broad, the songs pleasant and instantly forgettable. The first act begins to feel like an Everlasting Gobstopper, expanded by scenes that go on too long, as when Ella and Char venture off the stage to clamber up the theater stairs and behind the audience on their various journeys.

Saving the day for the adults in the room is the gloriously inventive eye candy on display in Nathan Motta’s production, a visual Wonka factory of chewy goodness.

Ella and Char frolic in a forest surrounded by ensemble members wearing oversized black head pieces that make them look like the world’s biggest ravens. A dragon wheels through the sky, getting closer and closer until we see its enormous talons appear, thrillingly close. A gang of hideous, crooning ogres salt and pepper Ella to prepare her for the table. (“Hello there, scrumptious!”)

Puppets by Robin VanLear, Robin Heinrich and Sue Berry, and projections by T. Paul Lowry are whimsical and stunning and utterly entrancing, particularly the artistry at work in the wedding of the giants. Ella crashes it in search of Lucinda who she believes is among the guests. Towering above the proceedings are a bride, a groom and an officiant joining them in holy massivemony. As in the “The Lion King,” we can see the humans inside the puppets, creating mesmerizing, organic hybrids. As they say their vows – in Giantese, naturally – it sounds something like whale song. The effect is oddly moving and entirely hypnotic.

Though “Ella Enchanted” is an unabashed celebration of women’s agency, it stops short of being revolutionary. (Consider this a spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with the ending of every fairy tale ever).

Disappointingly, Ella marries well. In fairness, the proposal is non-traditional, for which it earns points, but radical it is not.

Baby steps in those Cinderella slippers, ladies. Baby steps.

REVIEW

Ella Enchanted

What: Dobama Theatre presents the regional premiere of the play by Karen Zacarías. Music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Based on the novel by Gail Carson Levine. Directed by Nathan Motta

When: Through Sunday, Dec. 30.

Where: 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.

Tickets: $29-$35; student discounts available. Go to dobama.org or call 216-932-3396.

Approximate running time: 2 hours, with one intermission.

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