Saturday, December 01, 2018

“Ella” less than “Enchanted” at Dobama

Gail Carson Levine, author of the modern-take on a children’s fairy tale, “Ella Enchanted,” started her career as an illustrator.  “After taking a class in writing and illustrating for children, she discovered she enjoyed writing far more than illustrating.  Thus in 1987 she began penning tales.  Over the next nine years, all of her manuscripts were rejected. 

April 17, 1996, she recalls, “was one of the happiest in my life."  It was that day that her book “Ella Enchanted,” was signed.  It was published in 1997, and the next year it received a Newbery Medal, a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 

She says, of the process that lead up to “Ella,” “I was starting a new writing class and needed an idea, so I thought maybe I could expand a fairy tale. Cinderella is such an important tale, it's the first one I thought of. But when I considered it, I realized I didn't like Cinderella or understand her. She's so disgustingly good! And why does she take orders from her horrible stepmother and stepsisters?” 

She continues, “It's hard to write a book about a character who annoys and puzzles you. I was in trouble until I thought of the curse of obedience. Then I got it.  Ella has to do as she's told, and she takes revenge whenever she can.” 

The story centers on a girl who is given the “gift” of obedience at birth. As she grows up, the girl must defeat her evil stepmother, hungry ogres, and the troublesome curse to find her own voice.  In the process she finds her own voice and can live as her true self.

The book has been adapted into a musical play by Karen Zacarías with music by Deborah Wiks LaPuma. 

Zacarías is a Latina playwright who was the winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award.  She states, " My strongest playwriting lessons have come in trying to create stories that will resonate with young people—it is a rewarding, hilarious and heartbreaking endeavor to create plays in which kids really see themselves on stage."  

Wicks La Puma is a composer, music director and orchestrator. 

In order for a modern musical to be successful, it not only has to have a story that grabs and holds the attention, but music that not only helps develop the story, but is memorable.  

In the case of “Ella Enchanted The Musical,” after a strong start, the story becomes repetitious, a one-themed repeated idea, that of Ella not being able to resist her curse and overcome the commands for her to act against her natural will. 

The music is unmemorable, no song stands out, no melody lingers after one leaves the theatre.  The only part of the score that holds attention is the “ad lib” curtain call, when the tone changes and rock takes over.  It is here that the cast and the audience get involved and have some fun.

Dobama’s production, under the adept direction of Nathan Motta, exceeds the script and score.  Motta has let loose with all the theatre’s technical creativity.  

Marcus Dana’s lighting design helps create the proper moods. T. Paul Lowry’s projection designs are enchanting, the best seen this season on local stages.  Jeremy Dobbins’ sound design creates the proper illusions. Robin Vanlear’s puppet designs are impressively creative.

The cast is generally strong.  

Petite Natalie Green is charming as Ella.  She has a pleasant singing voice and creates the right child/adult image for the frustrated young lady held, against her will, to be a follower, rather than a leader.  

Tina D. Stump wails and delights as “de” fairy god mother. Amy Fritsche plays nice and then nasty as the mother and then step-mother. Neely Gevaart does air-head with double-take efficiency.  Kelly Elizabeth Smith is evil step-sister prime. 

The rest of the cast, Eugene Sumlin (Sir Peter), Joshua McElroy (Prince Charmont), Madeline Krucek and Arif Silverman are effective.

Capsule judgement:  In spite of getting a fine production, “Ella Enchanted, The Musical” fails to be everything it should.  Too bad.  It’s the “fa la la la la” time of year and a better red-bow theatrical present would have been nice.

“Ella Enchanted the Musical” runs through December 30, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  Alice Birche’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again” a grouping of vignettes that ask how to revolutionize language, relationships, work, and life while bursting at the seams of conformity,” from January 25 through February 17, 2019.