Lord knows what Soviet officials made of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” when it premiered at the Bolshoi in 1945. A fairy tale in which happiness came from marriage to a prince, performed in a country that had shot, jailed or exiled all its princes decades ago?
What Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has made of it is something very French. Cindy’s vain stepsisters and cranky stepmother puff cheeks and squint eyes like caricatures in political cartoons by Daumier. The backdrop for the garden outside their home gleams like a pastoral landscape by Bouguereau. The heroine has the pale fragility of a French porcelain bisque doll, and she’s sometimes costumed like one, too.
And why not? The best-known and gentlest version of the story comes from 17th-century France, courtesy of Charles Perrault. (The Brothers Grimm made it darker in the 19th-century German version: The ugly stepsisters slice off parts of their feet to convince the prince that the slipper fits them perfectly.)
Bonnefoux has created a kind of spring alternative to “The Nutcracker:” a charming, sweet and funny tale that’s almost free of morals, highlights the strengths of key performers and employs not only N.C. Dance Theatre and NCDT 2 but also a host of youngsters.
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He makes good use of Alain Vaes’ handsome set, especially when a cracked fireplace splits apart to reveal Cinderella’s coach, and of A. Christina Giannini’s costumes, which range from fairytale lightness for Cindy’s gown to freakish clunkiness for the grotesque courtiers. And Bonnefoux keeps the piece moving quickly enough for elementary schoolers: The search for the vanished girl plays out as a puppet show, with youngsters onstage watching a cloth prince’s international travails.
Pete Leo Walker and Anna Gerberich, whose chemistry must be due partly to their real-life love, make a compelling leading couple: He’s strong and bold, she’s ethereal and demure. In his variations, he seems to say, “I hope she’s watching!” In hers, she asks, “I wonder if he’s watching?”
The stepsisters often get played by men, but Bonnefoux trusted those roles to Jamie Dee and Amanda Smith, whose hip-swinging efforts to hornswoggle the prince earn laughs. Now it’s the stepmother who’s in drag, with Mark Diamond regally strange. (If Bonnefoux ever does an “Alice” ballet, Diamond would be the natural Queen of Hearts.)
The show offers few other big solos, but Jordan Leeper stood out in the athletic roles of Pan and a court jester, and Melissa Anduiza radiated benevolence as the fairy godmother.
In Prokofiev’s first version, she poses as a lower-class woman and rewards Cinderella for her kindness, after the stepsisters won’t help – a message about the deserving poor and the cruel bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union, perhaps. Here she’s simply a kind of angel from the start. In this world, ugliness has no lasting place.