Bad Cinderella | 2hr 30mins. One intermission. | Imperial Theatre | 249 W. 45th Street | 212-239-6200
Since we all have to do the multiverse thing now, here goes. I recently learned there’s a universe where Cinderella isn’t a sweet and pitiable maid, but “bad”—a bratty, screechy misfit who scorns the shallow superficiality of her times while lacking a discernible personality of her own. Perhaps there’s a universe where Stephen Sondheim is still alive and writes an Into the Woods spinoff starring Bernadette Peters as Cinderella. Maybe in another universe Bad Cinderella has hot dog fingers. Or one where the creative team of Bad Cinderella abandoned this garish, braindead riff on the fairytale before it could stink up Broadway.
Book writer Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) may think she’s flipped the script on the story of an abused stepdaughter, a fairy godmother, glass slippers and a fateful ball. But her fable of spunky iconoclasm versus glam conformity makes little sense and inspires zero sympathy. As mentioned, Cinderella (Linedy Genao) is a goth girlboss with ’tude: she keeps her hair plain while everyone’s is teased and bleached (wigs by Luc Verschueren); she wears dark earth tones against the rabble’s rainbow, sexualized couture (by Gabriela Tylesova); she is guarded and sardonic in contrast to her fellow townsfolk, who are cheerfully carnal. An opening choral number shows the fit and limber peasants of Belleville going about their daily chores while praising their smoking hotness: “Every single citizen’s a cut and chiseled god, / Beauty is our duty. / Everyone among us has a ripped and rockin’ bod.” I’d guess the creative team’s vision board prominently features: Horny Disney.
And Sharpied beneath that: Wicked But Dumb. You get the sense that Fennell saw Wicked at an impressionable age and thought, I want to do that. And she has. And it’s crappy. She and Alexis Scheer (credited with “book adaptation”) fail to define Cinderella beyond a kneejerk rejection of Belleville’s lookism. She could be witty, or well-read, or a Communist, but she’s just a joyless, contrarian cipher. The fact that Genao is a poor actor with a grating, nasal voice, and negative comic timing makes Cinderella less appealing than the gyrating cartoons around her. Pairing Fennell’s quippy and shallow book with lyricist David Zippel’s strenuously slangy lyrics and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lugubrious, syrupy music might have screamed cross-generational synergy on paper, but it’s a woeful marriage: TikTok meets grandfather clock.
It amazes me, frankly, that after decades in the business, Lloyd Webber still has no ability—or desire, perhaps—to write a bona fide musical-theater number. Oh, yes, there are pro forma power ballads, cutesy love duets, comic patter numbers, and acres of bloated underscoring, but not a single song written from a character’s unique perspective that deepens our understanding of them or moves their story forward. Talented actors croon and belt, but it’s hard to care about a syllable they say. Zippel’s banal, awkward lyrics are therefore custom-built for a composer whose pastiche is personality-free (you can hear more sophisticated stuff in movie soundtracks). At the end of Act I, Cinderella is tempted by a Godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson), who is more plastic surgeon than fairy dream weaver, and our hero makes an abrupt 180-degree turn into vanity: “I want to be hot, toenail to lash! / I’m talking blazingly hot; I mean like volcanic ash!” When lyricists are replaced by ChatGPT, Zippel will not be mourned.
Fine, Lloyd Webber isn’t interested in specific, character-driven songs with a strong dramaturgical function; he’s all about the shouty anthem or sentimental ear-slop (“Memory,” “Music of the Night”). Broadway show tunes used to be the pop of their day; songs had to be detachable from their context to be enjoyed by a wider audience. But the Frankenscore Lloyd Webber rolls out is an instantly forgettable patchwork of sub-classical bombast, bubblegum pop, French chanson—all wrapped around one of those insipid melodies (the title number) that he repeats until they’re tattooed on your hippocampus. (The Kars4Kids technique.)
If you shut out the music and words for a few minutes during the two-and-a-half-hour sit, there is pure performance that raises a smile. Carolee Carmello, the jewel of more flops than adorn the wall at Joe Allen, gobbles up Tylesova’s storybook scenery as the cruel Stepmother who schemes to get a daughter in the palace. Grace McLean’s Queen (another ruthless stepmom) is a daffy delight, ogling a platoon of shirtless Hunks and hitting crazy high notes (I thought I heard her ululate at one point). When these poisonous divas share a tea at the palace and hint at each other’s shady pasts in “I Know You,” the flamboyant camp-off is one of two times Bad Cinderella comes alive.
The other is a surprise appearance in the middle of a royal wedding by the super-buff Prince Charming (Cameron Loyal, pectorals aflutter), who has a special announcement about his own relationship status. The ensuing revelation is flat-out queer minstrelsy and yet another missed opportunity at depth or emotion—but fun at least, and aware of its own vulgarity.
Not a good sign when a B plot (the divas) and a deus ex machina (Prince Charming) completely usurp the show, making you loath to shift attention back to the putative hero as she moans out another boring ballad about how heart is dented beyond repair and how unfair it all is. You know what’s unfair? Writing a purported feminist musical that throws its hero under the pumpkin. Come to think of it, I’d rather watch a giant gourd warble “Midnight…”