Cinderella at Synetic
Maria Simpkins as the title role and Pablo Guillen as the Prince in Synetic Theater’s Cinderella Credit: Johnny Shryock Photography

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Kids ages 5 to 11 deserve more than a coronavirus vaccine for Christmas. 

Sure, they’ll want tangible presents, but if you have the means and know a kid who deserves a reward for getting jabbed, surprise them with tickets to a show. Chances are, the grown-ups will have a good time too.

Two area theaters have mounted outstanding, unique-to-D.C. productions of fairy tales for the holiday season. Both Beauty and the Beast (at Olney Theatre Center) and Cinderella (at Synetic Theater) feature Black women as the titular leads, and terrific comic acting in the supporting roles. Choose your own enchantment. 

Buzz began building for Olney’s Beauty and the Beast way back in April of 2020, when, a few weeks into the pandemic shutdown, the Montgomery County theater ambitiously announced it would mount the Disney classic as its 2020 holiday musical. 

Obviously, that didn’t happen, but Olney was able to rebook director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and stars Jade Jones and Evan Ruggiero for 2021. The resulting musical is both familiar and endlessly inventive. Jones has made quality supporting appearances in plays such as School Girls at Round House Theatre and The Amen Corner at Shakespeare Theatre. She does not have the figure of the stereotypical “Disney Princess” and both Gaston and the Beast fall madly in love with her, which adds another layer of positive messaging to the story. As Belle, Jones not only has her nose “stuck in a book,” she’s the smartest character onstage, always smiling despite being surrounded by “poor provincial” dimwits, as she sings in the opening number. Her voice is crystalline and expressive. Jones is a heroine any kid can root for. 

While many D.C. theaters have sought to elevate Black artists in their 2021-2022 seasons, the push for equity, diversity, and inclusion should be broader, and Olney understands this. Opposite Jones, Dodge cast Ruggiero, who lost his right leg to osteosarcoma while studying musical theater in college. Although Ruggiero is better known as a tap dancer, Dodge pushed for him to be her Beast, and worked disability into her concept for the character. 

In the prologue, an ensemble member plays the Prince as a “selfish, unkind” boy in a wheelchair who turns away a beggar woman seeking shelter on a cold night. The implication is that whatever trauma caused the Prince to lose his leg (and possibly his parents?) left him bitter as well.

That Ruggiero’s Beast learns to love Jones’ Belle, and earns her love in return—breaking a spell so they can rule with benevolence in a shining castle—is a beautiful message that should melt every heart in the theater like a “Home for the Holidays” scented candle. But all progressive warm fuzzies aside, Beauty and the Beast is also immensely funny and entertaining. A panoply of performers with D.C. ties fill out the supporting roles. Bobby Smith (more frequently spotted tap dancing at Signature) turns up as a soft-shoeing Lumiere, hamming it up with Dylan Arredondo as Cogsworth. Sasha Olinick makes his Olney debut as Belle’s doddering inventor father Maurice. (He’s not crazy, as Gaston alleges, but is portrayed as possibly experiencing early stages of dementia.) 

Michael Burrell isn’t local but a terrific get as Gaston. His pre-pandemic roles include French piano man Henri in the national tour of An American in Paris. Dodge cleverly decided to frame her anti-hero as a jock rather than a trophy hunter. There are no guns onstage, but the 10-member ensemble mob gamely wields mops instead of tiki torches and repurposes an 8-foot baguette as a battering ram. 

Olney Theatre Center’s Beauty and the Beast, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge; Teresa Castracane Photography

The props budget for this show would feed an entire village, and the costumes, designed by Ivania Stack, are spit-spot, as Mrs. Potts would say, full of colorful details that will help keep kids engaged and adults entertained. After the performance we attended, my friend’s son didn’t want to leave the theater, fascinated by the cast photos in the lobby, matching up the characters with their headshots like he was playing Guess Who? Perhaps he was dallying because staying out past his bedtime was so much fun, but equally likely, this newly vaxxed 9-year-old loved returning to live theater. 

While Synetic’s production of Cinderella lacks the Disney pageantry, there’s much to be said for taking kids to lower budget shows (with lower ticket prices) that require audiences to use their imaginations, rather than simply marvel at all the razzle dazzle. Maria Simpkins adapted, directed, and stars in this reimagined fairy tale, which like most Synetic productions, includes no dialogue. Instead, the Grimm Brothers story is told through movement, expressive pantomime, and music. 

Three rotating set pieces spin and connect to create Cinderella’s house, the castle, and the tree that represents the girl’s dead mother (a Grimm throwback you won’t find on the Disney Channel).  The cast features just six actors, and while returning fans may miss seeing a full stage for the ballroom scenes, these virtuosos work well with what they have. Instead of a stepmother, Cinderella is hobbled by an evil stepfather (Robert Bowen Smith) and one bratty stepsister (Covenant Babatunde). The gender bending continues with Irene Hamilton as the prince’s valet, who parades around in satin brocade pants, chasing a prince (Pablo Guillen) who would rather go for a walk in the woods than attend to his royal paperwork. 

The star-crossed couple’s meet-cute happens in the forest, where Simpkins’ Cinderella is doing the laundry—she teaches the prince how to rinse out a pair of boxer shorts. Despite their class differences, it turns out these two share an unlikely hobby: Latin ballroom!

Janine Baumgardner choreographed the show, giving Simpkins and Guillen many chances to salsa, rumba, and cha cha cha. Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s best original music for the show has an Afro-Caribbean flair, but at many awkward points, the score shifts back to Eurocentric classics. There’s a Mozart-like motif for the stepfather and a synthesized version of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau” plays while Cinderella’s fairy godmother waves her wands around. Kids may not notice, but for adults, some aural consistency would be nice, especially since the diverse casting and Latin ballroom choreography is used to such great affect. Music by composers of Iberian descent would have been fabulous references. 

But that’s critical nitpicking in a show that’s otherwise engaging thanks to clever staging and comic acting. Perhaps in non-pandemic times this Cinderella would include even more audience participation, but it’s still funny when the prince and his valet mask up and tromp through the audience to pass out ball invitations, and later, look for an unsuspecting patron to try Cinderella’s silver slipper on for size. As even the youngest audience members can probably guess, there’s only one foot that can slip into this shiny stiletto and live happily ever after. 

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and choreographed by Josh Walden, runs through Jan. 2 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $69-85. Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required at all Olney Theatre Center performances.

Cinderella, adapted and directed by Maria Simpkins and choreographed by Janine Baumgardner, runs through Dec. 26 at Synetic Theater, 1900 S. Bell S. Bell St., Arlington. $15 to $35. Guests 12 and older must provide proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test along with their I.D. prior to entry. Masks must be worn at all times.