‘Bad Cinderella’ on Broadway: sadly, the title says it all
The Daily Beast
March 24, 2023
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Bad Cinderella” aims to rebrand the fairytale, yet it couldn’t be more conventional, ill-serving its title character. Still, thanks for the dancing hunks.
All through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s inane mish-mash of a Broadway musical Bad Cinderella (Imperial Theatre, booking to Sept. 23) the nagging question is: what makes this Cinderella “bad” in any interesting, intriguing, meaningfully different way? The answer: not much. The title of the musical is a nonsense and marketing stunt—in London’s West End the same show was called Cinderella, and with more honest reason.
This Cinderella (Linedy Genao in her Broadway debut; she writes in the production Playbill that she is the first Latina performer to originate a leading role in a Lloyd Webber musical) and her true love Prince Sebastian (Jordan Dobson) are modern-ish facsimiles of fairly traditional characters. The story isn’t that much changed, despite the insistence that Bad Cinderella is a punk and rebel.
She really isn’t. As a character she swaggers and stomps around and looks angry, but she’s a victim-y drip at heart, albeit one dressed in a cool jacket and tight trousers. So is Sebastian. These whining characters deserve each other, but not for the reasons the show intends.
What a strange mess. Bad Cinderella looks cheap, with wobbling, fragile-looking set decoration, more akin to a British pantomime than Broadway show. And the show (with a book by the multi-award-winning Emerald Fennell), despite all its Lloyd Webber melodies and familiar setups that hark to so many of his previous musicals, feels like an old-school pantomime; its comedy and villains and mugging to the audience are straight from that venerable British Christmas theatrical tradition. It wants to be both archly contemporary and fairytale-fantastical, and tumbles bizarrely into the abyss between both. (Lloyd Webber’s 75th birthday was very sweetly marked by the cast at the end of Wednesday night’s performance; he was set to be absent from Thursday’s opening night because of his critically ill son.)
The show starts promisingly, with a statue of the allegedly dead (spoiler: he isn’t) Prince Charming (Cameron Loyal), with some red graffiti scrawled over it: “Beauty sucks.” This is the work of the as-yet-unseen “Bad Cinderella,” and here in the town of Belleville set in a kind of historically non-specific blur of past and present, an opening number outlines that beauty is everything. Looking good and being rich, are the key metrics of success and fulfillment (the best bit, a shirtless stud of a baker promising “Hot buns”). Cinderella, knowing venality and excessive vanity for what they are, is responsible for the graffiti. Gosh, what an interesting new kind of Cinderella we are about to meet! If only.
Sebastian is Prince Charming’s brother, and as down on the shallowness of his mother, the queen (Grace McLean) and court life as Cinderella is. He doesn’t want to rule over anything, or marry anyone. He mopes like no one else, and his and Cinderella’s downcast, over-it demeanors kill every ounce of life of the scenes they are in. We keep waiting to see Cinderella sock it to someone, or rebel, but we never see her do anything badass at all. We never hear her say anything that radical, or upend any traditional order of anything—gender, or power, or cultural expectation. Her boundary-breaking reputation is not matched by anything we see on stage.
Her and Sebastian’s initially interesting, spiky independence and friendship is soon diluted into an un-engaging, interminable love story. She loves him, he loves her. They don’t tell each other. She thinks he’s gotten married. He hasn’t. By the end, after the zillionth, wailing power ballad by Cinderella (“Far Too Late”—what an unintentionally accurate song title), your nails will be leaving scores in your seat wishing the whole damn thing would just end. Genao and Dobson valiantly do all they can with these characters, but are trapped by the flat imagining of them, and all the worthy goody two-shoes-ness that they are saddled with.
There is some fun to be had in the show. Carolee Carmello as the evil Stepmother brews her malevolence with acid relish, and oddly—as cruel as she is to Cinderella—at least makes us understand why she is so evil. “Why be enemies when you’re so completely expert at sabotaging yourself!” her stepmother tells Cinderella, and vile as she is, she ain’t wrong.
Indeed, when Cinderella finally tells her what she thinks of her, it is the stepmother’s retort that earns the bigger cheer—which is the canniest turn of storytelling in the script.
Cinderella: “The only thing I ever learned from you, dear Stepmother, is how to be a completely heartless bitch.”
Stepmother: “I can’t take all the credit for that. You’re a natural. You can’t blame me for everything you know. You did all the hard work…”
The stepmother wants the best for her selfish self, and two daughters, Adele (Sami Gayle) and Marie (Morgan Higgins), who seem to be channeling shallow Valley Girls. They, like most of the characters, should be more fun than they are. So often in this show, some scene sprouts up, and you think: Oh, this could be interesting only for it to fizzle away. Carmello and McLean are accorded a potential jewel of a duet, “I Know You,” which is a kind of diva face-off, both women making clear they know each other from back in the day of working in places of shadowy repute. But the lyrics never quite sharpen enough, and the song never quite hits its target, despite the jiggery-campery that Carmello and McLean play it with.
The show also leaves in odd stasis its focus on the shallowness of physical appearance and looks. Here, the Godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson) offers Cinderella the chance to look great if the Godmother acquires a much-treasured family necklace. So, Cinderella hands it over, the two of them singing a song called “Beauty Has a Price,” again underscoring Bad Cinderella’s seeming desire to say something about our society’s obsession with beauty. Cinderella, at this point, has apparently swallowed this baloney, despite being her also, minutes earlier, having no truck with it.
The story works best for both Cinderella and Sebastian when they just, well, let it go—he with a solo number, “Only You, Lonely You,” that’s the best in show and the most Lloyd Webber of Lloyd Webbery ballads—with deranged, soaring chords, rousingly declaring his love for his pal Cinders. Later, he asserts himself with the bro-ish hunky lackeys of her brother (finally), earning more cheers, and even dances, shrugging all the moping off. More cheers. (Producers, there’s a message here—do something more interesting with your two lead characters!)
Alongside the plodding “June/”moon” rhyming lyrics of the songs, the storytelling in the show is strewn with holes and contradictions. The beauty-isn’t-everything message is not the center of the show. It sort of drifts around the narrative, and is then lost. The reclamation of the necklace is another dead-end, as are the famous glass slippers of the story, which are important, then not that important. Cinderella is told, as usual, she must be home by midnight, but nothing ultimately happens with that.
Most obviously, Cinderella and Sebastian are both objectively attractive people, who are not exactly busting any beauty conventions by their presence. Also, let us call time on every theater show, film, and TV program that bangs on about the shallowness of beauty, and how real beauty lies within, when all are projects born of an industry—entertainment—where looks are a key component of who gets cast in whatever roles, including the roles within this show. The hand-wringing and hypocrisy of this messaging is laughable and absurd.
Beyond that, in Bad Cinderella, the makeover given to Cinderella is appalling. She looks worse after it, with a frumpy, glittery white dress and lank grey-white hair. It’s like one of those TV-makeovers-gone-wrong where you think: They definitely looked better before.
And anyway, despite all its facile, half-hearted jabs at a shallow obsession with physical aesthetics, the show is all about looks—proudly. It constantly requires its company of male dancers to show off their bodies for the pleasure of the audience. And they indeed do, exhibiting their bodies in the most wonderful, peacock-ish way possible—the audience on the night this critic attended went wild for the dancers, whose bombastic numbers like “Hunk’s Song” and “Man’s Man,” as they posed, preened, and worked out on gym equipment, were among the hits of the night. They certainly injected some life into the flatlining tundra of the central heterosexual love story.
Later, the biggest cheers are not for Cinderella and Sebastian finally getting it together as the stage curtain fell, but for the well-executed surprise of Prince Charming’s return from the dead—to proclaim his love for his gay true love, and for them to be married. The twinned emphasis on his amazing body and on celebrating same-sex love was greeted with a storm of applause and cheers. This was a raucously, brilliantly staged moment with real heart.
Not so the final union of Cinderella and Sebastian, which takes place, bizarrely, just as the curtain descends in a kind of rush. Yes, the audience is happy to see it, but they were audibly way happier with the gay-themed love-fest of moments earlier.
Bad Cinderella isn’t a radical reworking of Cinderella; it isn’t a reimagining, feminist or otherwise, of the prisons of femininity, social convention, and power. There are so many possibilities of radicalism in the narrative—Cinderella slyly undermining those she serves; Cinderella and Sebastian themselves rejecting the conventions that surround them; both of them questioning their roles, sexuality, gender identity, or being single or just friends at the end, off to see the world; a deeper dive into the evil stepmother’s early years on the other side of the tracks; even a genuine deconstruction of the obsession with beauty.
The story nods in some of these directions, almost as if ticking boxes of what might be expected of an updated Cinderella. Then, very quickly, it plumps for the most imprisoning, conventional story arcs—leaving Cinderella, Bad or maybe just Moody, unmoored from her own story. She, and Genao, deserve way better.