First: Bring earplugs.
Not just because the songs in “Bad Cinderella,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opened on Thursday at the Imperial Theater, are so crushingly loud. The dialogue, too, would benefit from inaudibility.
For that matter, bring eye plugs: The sets and costumes are as loud as the songs. If there were such a thing as soul plugs, I’d recommend them as well.
That’s because “Bad Cinderella” is not the clever, high-spirited revamp you might have expected, casting contemporary fairy dust on the classic story of love and slippers. It has none of the grit of the Grimm tale, the sweetness of the Disney movie or the grace (let alone the melodic delight) of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Instead, it’s surprisingly vulgar, sexed-up and dumbed-down: a parade of hustling women in bustiers and shirtless pec-rippling hunks.
Finally, a Cinderella for streetwalkers and gym rats!
That this is the supposedly improved version of the musical that opened in London in August 2021 beggars the imagination. Then simply called “Cinderella,” and welcomed with indulgent warmth by critics who were perhaps rusty after more than a year of lockdown, it has here acquired the adjective “Bad,” as if to dare headline writers with an easy mark. A more accurate adjective might have been “Unnecessary” — except perhaps for Lloyd Webber himself, whose unbroken 43-year streak of shows on Broadway, beginning with “Evita” in 1979, would otherwise end with the closing of “The Phantom of the Opera” in April.
Yet if there was no good reason for “Bad Cinderella,” that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been good. Quite a few recent and incoming musicals — “& Juliet,” “Once Upon a One More Time” and “Six” among them — have more or less reasonably applied a feminist spin to pre-feminist tales and history.
“Bad Cinderella” seems as if it could have been in the same league. Emerald Fennell (original story and book) and Alexis Scheer (book adaptation) have rejiggered the traditional plot to give Cinderella (Linedy Genao) a better motive for marrying Prince Sebastian (Jordan Dobson) than mere infatuation; he’s already her friend instead of a stranger she meets at a ball. Her transformation from a “gutter rose” and a “rebel” to a silver-leafed stunner, with the help of a godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson) who’s more of a mad aesthetician than a fairy, is not for him, we are told, but herself.
More on N.Y.C. Theater, Music and Dance This Spring
Despite that, and a series of effortful numbers Genao sings bravely, her story, which is almost entirely internal, recedes. Sebastian’s is more interesting. An unassuming, enlightened type, he has been dragooned into choosing a bride only because his brawnier and better-loved brother, Prince Charming, is presumed dead after disappearing at war. With both his mother (Grace McLean) and Cinderella’s stepmother (Carolee Carmello) devising other plans for him — the dreaded stepsisters, here hideous Valley Girls — Sebastian’s problem isn’t figuring out whom to marry (he wants Cinderella) but how.
Those changes are hardly groundbreaking, especially coming from Fennell, who won an Oscar for writing the feminist revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman,” and Scheer, whose play “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” took a cudgel to stereotypes of innocent girlhood. Still, they ought to have been sufficient to make “Bad Cinderella” at least a winky hoot.
One reason it isn’t is the unrelievedly pompous direction by Laurence Connor. Aside from those strident sets and costumes (by Gabriela Tylesova) and that aggressive sound (by Gareth Owen), there is a fundamental mismatch between the flippant fairy tale tone of the book, which wants the lightest possible treatment, and the exhaustingly one-note insistence of the staging. (The choreography is by JoAnn M. Hunter.) As in his work on the Broadway revivals of “Les Misèrables” in 2014 and “Miss Saigon” in 2017, Connor seems to favor busy, murky, late-Reagan-era oversell, not necessarily inappropriate to those late-Reagan-era shows but lacking the delicacy necessary for much that came after.
Also lacking delicacy: the songs, with workmanlike lyrics by David Zippel, and music by Lloyd Webber that often sounds like it escaped from “Phantom.” The prettiest, if most bombastic, is “Only You, Lonely You” for Sebastian, which has the engine-in-overdrive feeling of “The Music of the Night,” complete with triple-crème melody and sludgy orchestrations (also by Lloyd Webber).
But “Phantom” was a show about obsession, so its richness and hysteria made sense. If anything, “Bad Cinderella” is about plotting how to “marry for love” (the title of a song in the second act) and thus requires a much lighter touch. In only one number, “I Know You,” which McLean and especially Carmello turn into the show’s comic highlight, do Lloyd Webber and Zippel hit the mark.
Whether the mark is worth hitting is another matter; a comic duet that pits aging, carping viragos against each other in the manner of “Bosom Buddies” from “Mame” is not perhaps a feminist anthem. At least there are jokes to land: “I must admit I never quite forget a face/Though every feature’s in a slightly different place.” But mostly when aiming for drollery, the songwriters overshoot and wind up at operetta.
Well, “Phantom” was at bottom an operetta too, yet even in an obsolete genre has run on Broadway for 35 years. If “Bad Cinderella” does not seem likely to match that success, its virtues, however invisible to me, may yet be measurable by other means.
Keep in mind that Lloyd Webber’s 12 previous Broadway musicals, starting with “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971, have run up a total of 30,000 performances, nearly 75 years’ worth. (And he has just turned 75 himself.) What the shows have grossed in New York City — $1.4 billion for “Phantom” alone — could finance a moon mission, or pay off thousands of mortgages for employees and send their children to college.
Lloyd Webber, not only British but a Lord, has been, in that sense, America’s most successful theater composer. We can argue that “Evita” wasn’t good for the culture — and “Cats” not good for anything — but somehow, he and Broadway made a match that’s lasted like no other. Even without the blessing of critics, and just like “Bad Cinderella,” it’s an implausible story about a real marriage of love.
At Imperial Theater, Manhattan; badcinderellabroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.