CINDERELLA (A RATICAL RETELLING) by Mike Kenny, music by Jason Jestadt, directed by Allen MacInnis (Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front East). To December 30, Monday-Thursday 10:15 am and 1 pm (with some exceptions), Saturday-Sunday 2 pm (except December 23), December 27-30 at 11 am and 2 pm; youngpeoplestheatre.ca. $15-$20. 416-862-2222. See listing. Rating: NNN
Even vermin have a story to tell, which is playwright Mike Kenny's jumping-off point for Cinderella (A RATical Retelling), a version of the well-known story that involves neither fairy godmother nor magical coach.
Instead, it's a down-to-earth tale of friendship and loyalty - with tunes - in which wishes do come true, though not always as one expects.
We're first introduced to the five rats who act as narrators of Cinderella's fortunes; she's just been whisked off to the palace as the Prince's new bride. Now bereft of her company, Whiskers (Dmitry Chepovetsky), Tail (DeAnn deGruijter), Teeth (Elodie Gillett), Claws (Amy Lee) and Ears (Richard Lee) feel as lonely as the previously put-upon orphan.
Treated no better by her nasty new family than the rodents are, Cinderella becomes part of the rat pack; as the rats sadly acknowledge, she's one more sort of household vermin.
Replaying the history of Cinderella (Steffi DiDomenicantonio) for the audience, the five become the others in her several families: mother, father, stepmother and stepsisters. As is often the case, it's the wicked characters who are the most fun: deGruijter as the stepmother, with a heart like icicles, and Gillett and Lee as Cinderella's new stepsisters, beautiful on the outside but ugly within.
Under director Allen MacInnis, the quintet of rat actors have lots of fun establishing individual characters with their twitching, squeaking and sniffing; one of the show's musical highlights is the jazzy number No One Wants To Be A Rat. They're also strong in their human roles, the stepsisters depicted as quarreling teen sibs, their mother as a harpy and Cinderella's father (Chepovetsky) a milquetoast parent unable to stand up to his new wife.
But the writing in the first half spins its wheels for too long; it's only when we get to the ball that the production really takes off. Here we meet the Prince (Matthew G. Brown) and his comic father (Lee); we quickly discover that the Prince chafes under parental rule as much as Cinderella does.
It's here that DiDomenicantonio, who tends to be wan earlier, blossoms. This Cinderella has come to the ball not to snag a prince but to dance as her parents encouraged her. She and the Prince hit it off, first shyly and then, in a Bollywood dance number than includes the audience, zestfully.
The relationship between the Cinderella and the Prince is rightly the heart of the show. DiDomenicantonio and Brown play it well, from an initial tentativeness and the back-and-forthing of interest in each other to their final union when the glass slipper is put back on the right foot. It's here that Cinderella learns she's "not nothing...even vermin are something."
Robin Fisher's set and costumes capture the scale of both humans and rats, down to the overlarge kitchen props, while Lesley Wilkinson's lighting helps conjure up the sadness of the lonely vermin and the joy of the palace ball.
Musical director Jason Jestadt's tunes are short and catchy enough for even the youngest of audience members to appreciate. Too bad the lyrics in the ensemble songs are sometimes lost; it's a problem that we've had before, and may be due to the venue's acoustics.
And don't worry that your children will go home saddened by the early elements of the story. There's a happy ending, even for the rats.