Highly Recommended ****
Gail Carson Levine’s children’s novella “Ella Enchanted” is the story of Ella (Allison Pogorelc) whose fairy godmother, Lucinda (Bree Below), gives her the “gift” of mandatory of obedience when she cries as a baby in order to help her mother (Niffer Clarke) soothe her. Her mother instantly realizes the curse’s implication, and unsuccessfully tries to raise a daughter who is able to disobey—she does, however, warn Ella before she dies that no one most ever know about Lucinda’s gift. Later, Ella’s father, Sir Peter (Matt Daniels) marries an evil step mother (Niffer Clarke) and Ella is forced to deal with her two evil step-sisters (Grace Becca and Elizabeth Robbins) who discover their power over her, and compete with her for the love of Prince Char (Max Pink) whom she has befriended and advised in his quest to defeat ogres and protect the kingdom. (Bree Below, Thomas J. Novak, and NIffer Clarke). The sisters connive to destroy Ella’s relationship with the Prince, not hard given their power over her, before they themselves are presented to him at a ball, but Ella appears disguise, and reveals herself to him before fleeing and rather superfluously leaving a slipper behind.
I won’t go any further, but needless to say all is put right in the end in this mix of fantasy, fairy tale, and (female) Bildungsroman: all in all it’s a modern parable about contemporary concerns and values such independence, autonomy, and to a lesser extender, gender. (More on this later.) The plot, which has the twists, turns, and charm of a child’s imagination is adeptly adapted for the stage by Karen Zacarias while Deborah Wicks LaPuma’s score and the play’s sound design (Melissa L. Wanke) vividly brings to life the magic of childhood’s imagination. Each actor gives the play’s score its ample due in their musical numbers, but Pogorelc and Pink’s voices stand out as particularly strong and melodious with a delivery that represents the pinnacle of the charisma and charm associated with the best traditions of musical theatre.
In their spoken parts Pogorelc and Pinks’ additionally demonstrate an incredible chemistry, and Pogorelc’s refusal to allow her better education, skills as a polyglot, or pedagogic relationship with the prince (quite a trinity all in all) to ever come off as condescending make her thoroughly kind and sympathetic. In conjunction with Pink’s portrayal of a constantly tender and sensitive prince whose regality is merely incidental and not part of his character, Pogorelc’s performance helps neutralize what otherwise threatened to be a become a message that is too gender-specific for a young audience. It was clear from watching the production that the ability to say no is important in the formation of both boys and girls and that without it we would suffer greatly, both personally and morally. This is a sophisticated, and for first stage’s audience, important interpersonal theatrical dynamic for the director (John Maclay) to get across and watching young actors pull it off so seamlessly is quite astonishing.
That said, the production does have some minimal shortcomings. The scenic and property design (Jason Fassl), especially set against the amazing costumes (Brandon Kirkham), were sparse when the fairly-tale plot called for sumptuous. That said, part of fantasy’s appeal is the demands in makes on our imagination and the play’s biggest drawback was Maclay’s choice to use such diverse styles of acting in his otherwise excellent direction. Ella comes across as a traditional female lead with a strong voice but who uses stage presence, warmth, and charisma to connect with the audience rather than a realistic representation of the character. By contrast, Ella’s mother seems extremely real while her Step-Mother (played by the same actress) was closer to caricature. So was Ella’s father, Sir Peter, but in an entirely different way. However, this didn’t distract as much as it might have, mainly because the intense chemistry between Ella and her Prince (Pink shifted between warmth and charisma during his musical number to a touching and entirely believable earnestness during his spoken lines) overcame the differences in the two actor’s performance styles, and their story formed the central yarn of the plot. All in all, this is a great play sure to delight anyone who has enjoyed the novel, and fans of musical theatre in general, who will especially appreciate the score and the talent that the actors bring to its musical numbers.
Performances are on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 and 3:00 pm and utilizes alternating young performers of a spectacular and brilliant cast. (This review is based on the spectacular cast.)
Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased by calling 414-273-7206 or by visiting www.firststage.org