At least in the first act, "Ella Enchanted" feels a lot more like a play with music than the full-fledged musical it's billed to be.
The show by playwright Karen Zacarias, in its regional premiere at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, receives a beautiful presentation despite its shortcomings as a musical. The biggest problem is the score is so slight, it doesn't serve an integral role in helping to develop the stories or characters well. And most of the tunes by Deborah Wicks La Puma are unmemorable.
We expect magic seeing this story of fairy enchantment, ogres, giants and other creatures in this play, based on the 1997 Newbery Honor novel by Gail Carson Levine. Elaborate technical elements and excellent acting by Natalie Green in the title role provide most of the magic. It's just too bad the score doesn't deliver.
The petite, ever-young Green creates a passionate, intelligent, resourceful heroine whom we can love, against the backdrop of visually stunning storybook projections by T. Paul Lowry that include some surprising animation. Douglas Puskas also brings us into Ella's world of Frell with a set design dominated by a lovely bridge.
Ella is cursed at birth with the "gift" of obedience. She has no choice but to obey commands, even though she tries to resist throughout her upbringing. As the heroine sets out to rid herself of the curse, she meets everyone from ogres to giants.
In this modern retelling of the Cinderella story, Ella and Prince "Char" Charmont become friends by challenging each other intellectually. Yet actor Joshua McElroy feels too low-energy in his growing ardor for Ella. We wish we could see more of the personality and charisma that is supposed to draw Ella to him.
Tina Stump creates some fun as misguided fairy Lucinda, who pops up magically through the bridge. Amy Fritche creates distinctly different characters as first Ella's nurturing Mother and then her nasty stepmother Dame Olga, a diva who walks around with her arm constantly bent upward at the elbow as if she were a ballet teacher. And Kelly Smith and Neely Gevaart are appropriately obnoxious as Ella's nasty stepsisters, Hattie and Olive.
Marcus Dana's lighting design is beautiful and Jeremy Dobbins' sound design takes on great importance in this story through a special sound effect that occurs each time Ella is forced to obey.
This play stays true to the original book's focus on Ella's love of languages and emphasis on the power of words. That's in contrast to the 2004 film starring Anne Hathaway, which dumbed down that part of the story and added an evil uncle for the prince as well as an ill-fitting element of attempted murder.
Considering this show doesn't have the satisfying structure of a full-fledged musical, I wouldn't recommend it for adult date night. The show is best suited for families with children ages 10 and under.
The story offers a meaningful message about girl power, using your brain and standing up for what's right. At Dobama, Green creates a powerful ending scene when Ella finally exercises her own will in the song "I Say No." But the show really lets loose at the curtain call, which is a funky, cool surprise.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.