Bad Cinderella was conceived and originally written by Promising Young Woman Oscar winner Emerald Fennell, whose book has been adapted for New York by Our Dear Dead Drug Lord playwright Alexis Scheer. A revisionist take on the centuries-old fable, it’s set in the French-adjacent kingdom of Belleville, where everyone’s hot, and everyone who’s not is an outcast. “Our citizens are works of art/everyone a chiseled god with a ripped and rockin’ bod,” go Zippel’s occasionally clever, occasionally clunky lyrics in the opening number, appropriately titled “Buns ‘N Roses.” Tara Rubin has outdone herself in the casting department: The women are sexy, and the guys — mostly shirtless —are jacked. There’s something for everyone here in Belleville.
Enter our “bad” Cinderella (Linedy Genao), tied to a tree as punishment for defacing a statue of Prince Charming, who is presumed dead. She’s not pretty by Belleville’s standards, and her attitude could use a little work (though there’s no denying that the attractive and affable Genao never matches any of the townspeople’s descriptions). The only one completely smitten with her is Sebastian (Jordan Dobson), the prince’s younger brother, who is being pimped out by their mother, the Queen (Grace McLean), to marry someone who can carry on the royal lineage. What will happen once Cinderella’s evil stepmother (Carolee Carmello) and vapid stepsisters Adele and Marie (Sami Gayle and Morgan Higgins) find out, I wonder?
No, Bad Cinderella isn’t winning a Tony for restraint. For better or for worse, and with one delightful exception (which provoked the evening’s biggest reaction), this show goes exactly where you think it’s going to go. Props, however, to Fennell (and Scheer) for at least trying to create an anarchic allegory for our culture’s dangerous obsession with beauty, even if not a single line of dialogue would pass the Bechdel test. And to their credit, they have crafted the perfect vehicle for veteran comic scene-stealers Carmello and McLean. I’m not sure there’s a single set piece without their teeth marks in it, which also would probably explain why Gabriela Tylesova’s fanciful designs are so wobbly.
Lloyd Webber hasn’t done himself any favors by borrowing the show’s major musical throughline from a 66-year-old Rodgers and Hammerstein melody. There are some lovely songs in his and Zippel’s score, most notably the ballad “Only You, Lonely You,” which Dobson performs with the perfect amount of doe-eyed longing and sincerity. But all we can remember is the title number in its original form, “in my own little corner / in my own little chair / I can be whatever I want to be.” If the dances created by JoAnn M Hunter were a little more varied, they could have helped the score to pop a little more.
Genao delivers a sweet nothing of a performance that unfortunately radiates neither bad nor different. Similarly, neither she nor Dobson can really command that big a stage, and both of their voices seemed a little ragged during the day-before-opening critic’s matinee. But they’re both so winning that it’s hard not to root for them: The purity of their performances ultimately puts them over the finish line, albeit barely.
The major issues here lie with director Laurence Connor, a Lloyd Webber regular mostly known for his pared-down revivals of 1980s megamusicals like Phantom, Les Mis, and Miss Saigon. Sure, he puts the show onstage and got a group of designers to give it panache. What Bruno Poet does to create stained glass windows out of light and shadow is nothing short of extraordinary, and Gareth Owen’s crystal-clear soundscape allows us to hear both the lyrics and the orchestra in unison, a novelty in the era of louder is better.
But a director is also responsible for pacing, and amid the parade of beefcakes in S&M harnesses (Tylesova’s costumes range from extravagant to skimpy) is ballad after ballad that takes us out of the frivolity. There’s a whiplash in tone, from sarcastic to sincere, that the the production simply can handle. And because of that, the clock might strike midnight on Broadway just as quickly as it did across the pond.