Cinderella’s tale, and its thousands of variants, have been told all over the world and throughout time. Its oldest version was recorded hundreds of years ago. Despite being an old tale, it is still loved by many, with Cinderella being likable and relatable, as everyone loves an underdog and a ‘rags to riches’ story.
Midnight: The Cinderella Musical is the latest retelling of the classic fairytale. Produced by Spencer McLaren and Craig Donnell, music and lyrics by John Foreman and Anthony Costanzo, additional music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke, with book and direction by Dean Murphy and Pip Mushin, the creatives’ powers combine to provide the Australian theatre scene with an original Cinderella musical.
Midnight is not the first Cinderella musical to take to the stage and it won’t be the last. There is a reason why people love the story so much. But this musical unfortunately doesn’t offer anything fresh or inspiring. In fact, I felt it borrowed elements and moments from many Hollywood films such as Drew Barrymore’s Ever After and Enchanted (especially the ballroom scene). With these little bits and pieces borrowed, Midnight combines and repackages it into something that doesn’t feel new.
Ella is a merchant’s daughter that feels for her community and has a dislike for the monarchy not taking care of its country and its people. But despite her open dislike, she never goes far enough to openly campaign and there is never any drive or passion in her character to fight the system. The concept alone that Midnight carries out is far too like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
However, Midnight’s Prince is aloof, aimless, restless, horseless, and constantly wanders around the forest and the kingdom in general on foot, with no real purpose other than to serve as Ella’s love interest. Actually, every character in this musical is stereotypical, one-dimensional, and generic, many of them don’t even have names. In fact, the only characters with full names are the stepmother and stepsisters that are connected to Ella via her father’s marriage.
The idea behind Ella’s stepmother appearing kind and considerate, only transforming later into the wicked stepmother we’ve all come to know is refreshing, but the stepmother’s shift into evil territory is overly camp and cringey. A real shame, as this character’s transformation had the potential to be so much more.
The feminist tones in the story also feel very forced and unnatural with the way they’re inserted. It doesn’t feel like a woman’s voice was given leeway into the inclusion of this ‘empowerment’ shift and it comes across as ingenuine. It also felt like an easy politically correct direction and conclusion without much convincing and depth. Honestly, the entire plot needs to be reworked, especially if this is supposed to be a Cinderella tale, and I’m not just talking about the creepy looking and unnecessary talking bear that nobody asked for.
Speaking of depth, there really isn’t any in this show. Many of the jokes are narrowly only Australian centric and would need to be rewritten to be flexible and appeal to a wider audience. I found majority of the jokes unfunny and was never moved by any part of the story. If anything, the characters lack dimensions and growth. Ella appears to be safe the whole time. Locked in the attic by her stepfamily? Nope, she has a key! As much as I like Ella being headstrong and well grounded, she also is never in any real danger or duress, which doesn’t give viewers much to cheer for.
Visually, Midnight is aesthetically pleasing with its gorgeous tones of fuchsia pink, yellow and teal consistently used throughout the production, appearing to be the show’s signature colours. The costuming by Harriet Oxley is impressive. I loved the design of the Prince’s costume, and Ella’s ballgown is stunning, but unfortunately the magical gown transformation is rather anti-climactic. Ella’s normal look reminded me too much of Pixar’s Brave, but without the bravery and feistiness that Merida had.
Don’t get me wrong, Midnight is still a fun and entertaining show. The cast consist of Australia’s greatest theatre stars that are the best in the business.
Lucy Durack shines as the quirky fairy godmother, and the laboratory science vibes were a good touch. Along with that sparkling Durack magic, she made the role her own and brought a smile to my face every time she was on stage. Shane Jacobson is stupendous as The King, and you can really tell he’s having a lot of fun with the character. Thomas McGuane is lively, handsome and dashing as the Prince and McGuane does the best with what he has to work with. The same could be said for Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kristie Nguy, and Melanie Bird in their roles as Madame Bellington, Rosalie Bellington, and Tiffany Bellington. Raphael Wong is great and shows deep empathy as the Father during the little time he has on stage.
The role of Stella is shared by Alberta Brudan, Liv Jacobson, Isobel Lauber, and Elisha Villa. Opening night had Brudan and the role, and she was very natural and enthusiastic, reading the fairytale story to herself while also playing the role of the narrator.
Matt Lee is by far the standout as Andre. Not only is Lee a delight to watch every moment he is on stage, but his energetic and skilful dance scenes thoroughly impressed and knocked it out of the park.
Brianna Bishop is the heart of the show as the headstrong and mostly independent, Ella. Her vocals are sublime and every moment Bishop is on stage is a joy to witness. With true star power, Bishop is every inch the leading lady she deserves to be, radiating a confidence in her character that makes her Cinderella extremely likable and infectiously charming.
If you can look past the gaping plot holes and unimaginative retelling, the music is great in its own way. Providing the cast many opportunities to showcase their vocal talents, the music dips into pop, rock, Latin music, and even jazz with ease. But the lyrics of some songs need work, and while pleasing to the ear, none of the songs have stuck with me after leaving the show. The only parts that stuck with me were things that shouldn’t have; fart jokes aren’t funny at all under any circumstance, and the hero lyrics need to be tweaked to not remind audiences of another famous musical, which I couldn’t unhear the moment I heard the words, “Why can’t I?”.
I genuinely love Cinderella and I’m always keen to take on a retelling whether it be in a K-drama, a streaming series, or even an animation. I have no issue with Cinderella being retold on the stage in an original new musical. But Midnight is flawed. I really wanted to love this show but it doesn’t really offer anything special. I left the show entertained by its talented cast but unsatisfied with how the story panned out. It doesn’t do the beloved fairytale justice and I just couldn’t unsee the plot holes. Like for example, how did Ella know the scarf on the floor in the forest belonged to the Prince when they were never standing near that spot and she never saw him wearing it?
Although I understand that creating a new original musical is no easy feat, despite being a Cinderella tale, I believe Midnight doesn’t know what it wants to be. Does it want to be art, or does it want to be a kids show? Does it want to tell something important, or does it want to provide much of the same with a very minor Aussie touch and twist? I wish I had the answer but I don’t think we’ll ever know.
Midnight: The Cinderella Musical is currently playing until July 18th at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.