Happily, EVER AFTER Is a Hit

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You’ve got to admire Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler.

Nearly four years ago, their musical version of the 1998 film EVER AFTER had its world premiere. Perhaps plagued by a too-literal take on the charming movie, perhaps hampered by a dull unit set, the show couldn’t make the 23-mile move from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey to Broadway.

Now, at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Goldrich and Heisler demonstrate that they believe the adage “Musicals aren’t written; they’re rewritten.” So they’ve provided new songs, dialogue, situations and character development. Alliance has allowed Anna Louizos to design a series of ornate sets. As a result, EVER AFTER – a funny and moving spin on the Cinderella story — should be Broadway-bound.

Gone is the film’s unnecessary framing device where The Brothers Grimm hear the “real” story of Cinderella from her great-great granddaughter. Heisler knows that we can easily learn the backstory without it. Danielle’s father remarried a widow with two daughters and expected that they’d be one happy family. His fatal heart attack sealed Danielle’s fate as the three women turned her into their servant (if not slave) whom they ingloriously nicknamed Cinderella.

Because we were told the Cinderella story when we’re kids, we took for granted that that was her real name. If we were to continue thinking about the story as we aged, we’d realize that that had to be a name thrust upon her.

Even original author Charles Perrault didn’t give us her birth name. Screenwriters Andy Tennant, Susannah Grant and Rick Parks decided on Danielle; Goldrich and Heisler have retained it.

As in the film, stepmother Baroness Rodmilla sees her more attractive and poised daughter Marguerite as Princess material. As for other daughter Jacqueline, she’s heavy, ungainly and bespectacled – so she’s Louise to Marguerite’s June.

If your parents unequivocally let you know you weren’t the favored child, you’ll feel for this unfortunate distant second-place finisher. That’s more the case than in the film, for Heisler has fleshed out Jacqueline, made her more complex and intent on finding her heart. She also meets a different fate that will satisfy audiences.

If the Baroness doesn’t think much of her second daughter, you can imagine where Danielle ranks on her food chain; she’s only good for cooking food, serving it and sweeping up the crumbs. The poor soul has been so beaten down that she can’t even imagine anyone ever caring for her.

So Danielle goes into denial: “Who Needs Love?” is her song (with an excellent Goldrich melody) where she sloughs off romance. Part of it is that Danielle can’t envision anyone ever loving the likes of her; the other part is sheer rationalization, proved by Heisler’s superb lyric “A knight in shining armor is just another thing to dust.”

So much for knights — but what about a Prince?

The film took more time to show that Prince Henry doesn’t want to enter an arranged and politically expedient marriage with the Princess of Spain. “I wished they’d asked me,” he grouses about his romantic future.

King Francis and Queen Marie certainly don’t make a good case for arranged marriage. They bicker and insinuate all show long. Perhaps that’s why the king gives his son five days to find a new bride. When Henry grouses about the short deadline, his father points out “That’s five more days than I had.”

Heisler knows the musical theater playbook: things must happen fast. She brings in Henry’s story much earlier, which also makes EVER AFTER as much his story as Danielle’s.

Rodmilla earmarks her for Marguerite. The young woman is smart enough to know that if the Prince’s favorite color is blue, every maiden in the kingdom will show up in that hue. In the next scene she’s proved right, for costume designer Linda Cho has put a bevy of beauties in navy, powder, teal and robin’s egg blue.

(Considering EVER AFTER takes place in France, this gives new meaning to HOW TO SUCCEED’s “Paris Original.”)

However, when Marguerite meets the Prince in her bright golden yellow dress, she tries to win him over by saying what she thinks he wants to hear. Thus she loses her distinction and becomes just another one of the girls.

Danielle instead speaks her mind, which the sycophant-saturated Prince finds startlingly refreshing. Yet her smarts and spunk haven’t been enough for Heisler; she has Danielle extract him from his gilded cage, take a look at the real world and gives him a hard lesson in sociology — that outlaws sometimes are poor people who see no way out but crime. “You make them thieves and then you punish them,” she rasps. Her solution? Educate them. And he sees the wisdom of that.

Our heroine isn’t just apple-polishing. Earlier we came to like her when she went to bat for her fellow servant Maurice. It’s an act from which she won’t profit other than by having a good friend in the household.

As in the film, Leonardo da Vinci – yes, that Leonardo — is a pivotal character. The musical relies on him even more and to fine effect. At one point, he says the statement that so many accomplished geniuses, experts and savants have said: “I know nothing.” Of course that’s an exaggeration, but we know what he means — that in the worldly scheme of things, even a great authority knows comparatively nothing.

(Although at one point where he is called upon to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem, he amuses by showing that a simple solution is often best.)

According to Wikipedia, da Vinci was adept at “invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography.” Here we see he mastered the art of modesty, too.

He’ll turn out to know quite a bit about a subject you wouldn’t necessarily expect him to ever address: love. He takes a greater interest in matchmaking than he does in the film. Let’s hope that the real Leonardo da Vinci was this nice.

Much is made in the film that Danielle’s father used to read to her. Heisler ups the ante by having Henry take her into the castle’s extensive library. Goldrich’s music is fine and era-appropriate throughout, but here is where she delivers her most beautiful song: “I Remember.”

Luckily, Sierra Boggess is on hand to sing it. She’s potent in all of her songs, although especially fierce and moving in an aria after Rodmilla (not Marguerite, as in the film) does her cruelest act. For the rest of the show, Boggess displays more charms than you’ll find on a grandmother’s bracelet.

Although Angela Huston’s Baroness Rodmilla is unstintingly malicious in the film, Rachel York instead wisely begins as a pretentious social climber; she picks up the meanness as she goes along.

As Prince Henry, Tim Rogan makes for the most dashing young noble since Robert Goulet’s Lancelot. David Garrison has quiet authority as well as tenderness as Leonardo. Jenny Ashman (Marguerite) and Rachel Flynn (Jacqueline) delve deep to show how different two sisters can be. Todd Buonopane is capital as a captain who increasingly becomes important to the plot.

Susan V. Booth has delivered a fast-moving – and emotionally moving – production. Choreographer Joann M. Hunter gives some rather contemporary moves to the Prince and Danielle, suggesting that they’re both ahead of their time.

Well, you know how CINDERELLA ends, so you can guess how EVER AFTER does, too. Both the film and the musical could have had Danielle, who’s been nice all along, continue to be. But niceness must bow to justice. Only saints would wince at how Danielle decides to handle Rodmilla and Marguerite – and perhaps they too might even approve.

No, four years ago this musical wasn’t yet prepared to make the 23-mile trip to Broadway. Now EVER AFTER is ever-ready to make the 880-mile journey from Atlanta.