A new Andrew Lloyd Webber show always generates advance excitement or trepidation, and with his new Broadway musical, Bad Cinderella, now running at the Imperial Theatre at 249 W. 45th St. in New York, it’s no different. With lyrics by David Zippel, with original story and book by Emerald Fennell, and book adaptation by Alexis Scheer. It is directed by Laurence Connor and choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter, is Bad Cinderella as bad as everyone is making it out to be? Not really. I mean, it’s not a terrible musical, but it isn’t good either.
Musically, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber. It sounds like Andrew Lloyd Webber. You’ll be able to hear the similarities in some of Cinderella’s ballads to songs like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom of the Opera. So musically, if you like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s scores as a whole, you’ll find the score a comfortable fit for you.
The book, though, is sloppy, which I’m including Zippel’s lyrics as part of as his tendency leans toward cliched metaphors that were a bit worn out 10 years ago, and the repeated use of the term Bad Cinderella becomes an annoyance as it is used at times that have zero bearing on Cinderella’s character, and feels there only for the sake of it being the name of the show. Granted, I’ll acknowledge this may not be the case since the name of the show didn’t become Bad Cinderella until it came here to Broadway.
Bad Cinderella feels like retreaded plot points from previous Cinderella-style stories that have come out in the past 15 to 25 years, whether it be the 2021 film of Cinderella with Billy Porter, or the Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews film series The Princess Diaries. I think, maybe, when the show was first being conceived and written, it may have felt like a new twist to the story, but because Broadway shows, musicals in particular, take so long to get on their feet, unless it is something truly original, it’s easy for a show to get old before it has even been born. Especially with a property so frequently adapted as this one.
The concept behind Bad Cinderella is that we have the town of Belleville, a community of vapid pretentious people whose only care in the world is that whatever they do, they look good doing it. Cinderella, played by Linedy Genao, is the black sheep of the community. Instead of wearing silky pastels, she wears dark shades of leather, in a rock n’ roll girl style that fits the medieval semi-fantasy world they live in.
Like the classic tale, she lives with her stepmother, played with scene stealing resplendence by Carolee Carmello, and her two prideful stepsisters, Adele, played by Sami Gayle, and Marie, played by Morgan Higgins.
The story goes in a different direction as Cinderella doesn’t have any fantasies of life in a castle. Prince Charming has been missing for a year and presumed dead. Her only friend, though, happens to be Prince Charming’s younger brother, Prince Sebastian, played by Jordan Dobson. I actually saw his understudy Julio Rey the afternoon I was in attendance, who was actually really good, as the awkward younger prince. Whether it was intended or not, he had a pasty nervous quality that I thought was fitting for the character. He doesn’t want to be thrust into the spotlight, as the Queen, played by another scene stealing superstar Grace McLean, wants him to immediately marry someone from Belleville.
Sebastian is a bit of an odd duck too and he has a negative view of the people of Belleville and finds his only comfort hanging out in the woods with Cinderella.
So, this leads to the question, if the two characters already like each other at the top of the show and both share a disdain for the vainglorious citizens of Belleville, then why do we need a story?
Well that’s one of the narrative issues, and it’s a big one as the fabricated reasons as to why they can’t be together are pretty weak, requiring Cinderella to believe her stepmother, whom she already distrusts, telling her that Sebastian wouldn’t love her unless she was like everybody else. This is done literally just after Sebastian tells her he wants her to come to the ball just the way she is. This all fabricates more drama as Cinderella goes to the Godmother, played by Christina Acosta Robinson, who isn’t magical in this version, but is a plastic surgeon, to get a makeover for the ball, getting botox injections, a new do, and an admittedly impressive costume change.
This is all the first act.
The second act addresses the repercussions of Cinderella’s attempt at changing herself for a man who already told her he doesn’t even want her to change, starting with the fallout of the ball, which doesn’t end in the way that the classic fairy tale does.
I won’t spoil how the musical plays out from the ball on, but I will say that the second act does address the show’s themes much better and is the much stronger act. In spite of the contrivances getting us there, the show’s resolution does bring an uplifting sense of satisfaction. On the other hand, the second act does run a bit too long as there are two major sequences in the act, a ball and then a wedding, and the post wedding action gets tedious.
Granted, there isn’t even much motivation for Cinderella to even want to go to the ball in any way shape or form as either the direction of the character, or the acting by Genao, doesn’t offer much romantic interest on her part toward Sebastian. Their first scene together has no romantic tension. It could be due to Rey being an understudy and the two maybe not having much time together on stage. But I enjoyed Rey’s performance, so I’m inclined to think it was something else.
Really, I think Bad Cinderella was a missed opportunity. There is a lot of potential here. This could have been a great story paralleling our cultural obsession with beauty and vanity, setting the story of Cinderella on its head. Instead we get a muddled mess.
That isn’t to say that it’s a total loss. The cast is overall wonderful, as I’ve mentioned before. I also think that Gabriela Tylesova’s scenic and costume design is gorgeous. The dresses in particular for the women are brilliantly detailed and when hitting their spots under Bruno Poet’s lighting, they shine. I also love the environmental stage elements like the proscenium and the set pieces that give just enough of a fairy tale world that isn’t quite fantasy.
So, as much as I appreciate and approve of the attempted message of finding beauty in yourself and not following the banal vapidness of cultural norms, I find the changes in relationships with the characters creates more problems than it solves. The cast is delightful and the design is superb. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is pretty much classic Lloyd Webber and you know what you’re getting there.
It’s not the worst new musical of the year, there are at least one or two that come to mind that I can think of…and if you have heard my other reviews of this season, you’ll know what one in particular I’m thinking of. Bad Cinderella, not as bad as all that, but still not that good.
Leininger is a weekly contributing theater critic for CT Examiner