It starts with a shoe: The close-up view of an immense sparkling blue slipper seen from below, as if we were emerging from the Underground after a Nazi bombing raid had wreathed 1940 London in oily smoke.
It ends, except for an epilogue of celebration at Paddington Station, with two shoes: the matched pair that bring Cinderella and her prince (a Royal Air Force pilot named Harry) together in a convalescent hospital.
In between comes a deeply emotional, audacious reimagining of a fairy tale that has existed in many forms since pre-Christian times. “Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella,” now in Charlotte on the Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights season, blends the fantastical wildness of his “Sleeping Beauty” with the subtle wit and cinematic nature of his “The Red Shoes.”
When I tell you it contains a dance hall full of corpses restored to life, an attempted murder (or maybe two), a pervy stepbrother who’s a shoe fetishist, electroshock therapy and a war wound that seems to trigger PTSD, you’re likely to have two responses: This isn’t meant for the tiara-wearing Disney princesses-to-be I saw around Belk Theater at the Sunday matinee, and it can’t all work when crammed together.
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The first is correct. If this were a movie – and it often feels like a taut 1940s film with a soundtrack by Sergei Prokofiev – it would be rated PG-13. The second is not.
Director-choreographer Bourne has always been an amalgamator, a man who thinks big in many ways: The length of his pieces, the size of his casts, the scope of his ideas, the gestures he gives to dancers, the way he uses space, the arcs of his narratives, the density of the action. Look around Paddington Station as Harry and Cinderella celebrate; one unnamed woman waits vainly at the back for a loved one who’ll never get off the train.
He likes ambiguity but usually resolves it. When the moon comes down near the end of Act 1, and white-suited airmen whirl through the sky, we know bomb-struck Cinderella must be hallucinating.
But we have to wait until the start of Act 3 for reality to return, and the entire second act takes us inside her strange imaginings. Bourne doesn’t end with the triumph of love, though it does triumph for the pair. Instead, The Angel (his version of a Fairy Godmother) lays his invisible hand on the shoulder of a solitary woman in a tea shop, preparing to transform another life.
Bourne assigns steps that play to principals’ strengths and demand more acting ability than most choreographers require. Ashley Shaw, magnetically frenetic as the doomed Victoria in “Red Shoes,” gets to be quietly poignant here.
Andrew Monaghan’s Harry has Gene Kelly-like athleticism, and the two change moods for a steamy night in the pilot’s apartment. Paris Fitzpatrick produces an ethereal, long-limbed line as the Angel, and Madelaine Brennan’s stepmother comes off like a slinky Joan Crawford on the brink of madness. (The show has been double- and triple-cast, so you may see other dancers.)
Set and costume designer Lez Brotherston matches Bourne’s vision with his own magic, notably a night club that reconstitutes itself from ruins and then spectacularly crashes back into rubble.
Neil Austin’s spooky or sensuous lighting, Duncan McLean’s atmospheric projections and Paul Groothuis’ soundscape of planes, sirens and explosions pull us into Cinderella’s subconscious. It’s an unexpectedly dark place, the kind Bourne has often visited and will presumably explore next in “Romeo and Juliet.” Enter without preconceptions and emerge amazed.
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella
WHEN: Jan. 8-10 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 11 at 8 p.m., Jan. 12 at 2 and 8 p.m.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes, including two intermissions.
TICKETS: $25-$104.50. Also $25 for student rush less than two hours before curtain.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.