'Ella Enchanted' at Dobama Theatre is a Slick, if Drawn-out, Affair for Kids

'Ella Enchanted' at Dobama Theatre is a Slick, if Drawn-out, Affair for Kids
Steve Wagner Photography

When it comes to spells that a naughty fairy can impose on a person, a curse of obedience ranks pretty high on the pain spectrum. That’s what the title character is facing in Ella Enchanted by Karen Zacarias, now at Dobama Theatre. This adaptation of the eponymous book by Gail Carson Levine explains the Cinderella story by making it all about a spell cast by the fairy Lucinda, who clearly suffers from a form of attention deficit disorder.

This is what is currently called a “family” show, but in actuality it’s really a kids’ show, since there’s little in the script to keep adults engaged. I mean, the Cinderella folk tale is part of our DNA, and we don’t exactly need a two-hour show, with intermission, to lay out the storyline again.

Sensing this, director Nathan Motta has loaded this production with all kinds of staging twists (a new pathway around the audience, huge hallucinatory puppets), and powerful eye candy (gorgeous lighting by Marcus Dana, enthralling projections by T. Paul Lowry) to keep everyone on board. All this in the service of a story that swings wildly (a wedding of giants! an attack by ogres!) and doesn’t even get around to the fancy ball and the glass slipper until somewhere in hour two.

Even with all the production razzle-dazzle, Ella is saddled with some grindingly slow storytelling, with much of the dialog delivered at a snail’s pace so the kiddies don’t lose their place. And unlike many shows and films for kids that have subtle jokes placed in the script for the benefit of the adults in the audience who brought the little ones, there is little of that until the second act when an amusing Phantom of the Opera gag is finally trotted out.

The cast is strong in all the right places. As Ella, Natalie Green oozes innocence but also reveals a feisty streak as she tries to subvert her own obedience-imposed nature. Although the music by Deborah Wicks La Puma is mostly of the background variety, Green manages to infuse her songs with a sense of import.

She is backed up well by Tina D. Stump who plays loopy Lucinda and a couple others, and Amy Fritsche who is double-cast as both Ella mother (who dies early, a la Bambie) and Ella’s mean stepmother Dame Olga. As for the evil stepsisters, they are given a Saturday Night Live turn echoing the way SNL embodies the grownup Trump sons. Kelly Elizabeth Smith is Donald, Jr. (er, Hattie) who never misses a chance to do something nasty, while Neely Gevaart as Olive is the sweet but clueless Eric, being led around by the nose.

Joshua McElroy makes for a very down-to-earth (and indeed, charming) Prince, but Eugene Sumlin seems to struggle a bit to find a hook for Sir Peter, Ella’s father. His connection to his daughter and infatuation with Olga never feel fully realized, even for a fairy tale.

Part of the weakness of the show is revealed in a curtain call mini-concert, when the actors throw off their character shackles and perform some rip-roaring contemporary tunes. This up-tempo and energized performance, while certainly enjoyable, has no organic connection to what went before and serves to point out how slow and strange some the previous two-plus hours had been.

This is an extremely slick and professional production on the surface, and the acting is certainly more than satisfactory. But a story that could have been told neatly and simply in an hour or so has been padded out, and the stuffing begins to leak out by the end.

Ella Enchanted
Through December 30 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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