Children’s Theatre lays down a jazz beat with ‘Ella’

Ella and her father (Margaret Dalton and Mark Sutton) ponder the future in “Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella.”
Ella and her father (Margaret Dalton and Mark Sutton) ponder the future in “Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella.” Donna Bise

Charlotte has made theater history with the world premiere of “Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella.” Composer-lyricist-author Joan Cushing adapted this musical from British-born Shirley Hughes’ 2004 book. This adaptation is part of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s Dreamer Series (ages 6 to 8) and Adventurer Series (9 to 14).

Everyone from tots to adults knows the classic story of a weary daughter whose widowed father remarries. She acquires a brassy stepmother and two hoggish stepsisters, who use her as their maidservant. The setting has been moved to London during the Roaring ’20s, with flapper dresses, finger-waved hair and propulsive dance cadences all the rage.

Ladies wrapped in satin low-waist, shin-length dresses and cloche hats flit across the stage, tuxedoed men in tow. Designer Bob Croghan’s costumes made me wish I could travel back in time to slip into one of his ornate creations, with their mounds of shiny material, sparkling fringe and iridescent beads. Ron Chisholm’s choreography hits big, with the entire cast vigorously stepping the Charleston to musical director Drina Keen’s syncopated rhythms.

Ella (Margaret Dalton) and her father, Mr. Cinders (Mark Sutton), have a close relationship. The two affectionately sing “Stitch by Stitch,” a testament to their bond. The pair, still mourning the death of Mrs. Cinders, run a popular dress shop which visitors frequent in droves to purchase the latest craze. Delivery man Buttons (Sean Powell) is a fixture in the shop as Ella’s admirer and confidante.

Mr. Cinders entrusts his beloved daughter with every facet of the boutique, until Madam Renee (Susan Roberts Knowlson) and her two aristocratic daughters, Ruby (Tiffany Bear) and Pearl (Emily Gay), storm in. They condemn Ella’s sense of style and chide the establishment’s drab decor.

Shortly thereafter, Madam Renee becomes Mrs. Cinders and gives the shop a makeover, adversely reshaping the relationship between Ella and Mr. Cinders. Renee’s insults cause friction, especially when she insinuates Ella isn’t worthy to attend the duke’s upcoming ball.

Ruby and Pearl’s exaggerated, brattish behavior proves to be too much for Ella, who crumbles while helping the two socialites get dressed for the fete. From here, the tale is much the same as the classic story, though it seemingly gives hope to more than one underdog in the end.

Director Adam Burke brings this tale to life while keeping details of the time, place, and culture intact. The minimal graphics are a welcome touch in this mesmeric production, and scenic designer Ryan Wineinger allows the book’s pages to leap onto the stage via sliding backdrops that resemble illustrations.

‘Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella’

When: Through Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Also 11 a.m. Dec. 12. The 3 p.m. performance Dec. 12 will be signed for the hearing-impaired.

Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh Street.

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $12-$24.

Details: 704-973-2828 or www.ctcharlotte.org