DECATUR — Millikin University’s theater program exists to challenge its students with difficult productions that can help take their skills to the next level, but every now and then there is also space for the classical and the family friendly.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” which opens tonight on the university’s biggest stage at the Kirkland Fine Arts Center, is unlike many of the shows that have graced the stage in recent years as part of the drama department’s main stage series. But that just means there’s more room for its performers to imbue the show with their own touches.
“It’s been 15 years since the last Rodgers and Hammerstein show in the Millikin season,” director Kevin Long said. “It’s not the most complicated story — actually, to read Hammerstein’s writing about it, he looked up the story in the encyclopedia and just adapted it from that. This is classic Broadway, in the style of ‘Oklahoma!’ with a very traditional, Golden Age of Musical Theatre symphonic score.”
Unlike other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, “Cinderella” was written for television, where it premiered live in 1957, starring Julie Andrews in the title role. At Millikin, that role will be played by Emily Gardner, who has hoped to play it since she was a little girl.
“I’m kind of living a dream, because I love Disney World and the Disney princesses and I always wanted to be one,” she said. “And because I’ve also dreamt of singing and dancing and acting, it’s really two dreams at once; it’s very exciting.”
For many, the definitive version of the Cinderella story is the classic 1950 feature film by Disney. This version is somewhat light on its characterization of Cinderella beyond showing her as the heroine, something Gardner believes is addressed in more depth in the stage musical, which also contains some material inspired by the 1997 TV adaptation starring R&B singer Brandy.
“You see here that she’s a very genuine person,” Gardner said. “She’s got a good heart and is very kind, but she can also stand up for herself when she needs to. She’s grown up to be a good person despite living with such a wicked stepmother. It was fun to approach the character because we don’t know a lot about her, but through the work of the production team, they helped me give her real substance.”
Charlotte Fox, who plays the evil stepmother character, also enjoyed the challenge of embodying her “pure evil” character but characterizing her beyond that label.
“I think you’ll find in this production that we’ve got a very clear heroine and a very clear villain,” she said. “It touches on some powerful, archetypal stuff. It’s also nice to see, coming from ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ last year, which was a very male-driven show, a feminine heroine on stage, as well as a female villain.”
And unlike “Sweet Smell,” this was definitely a production conceived with children in mind. “Cinderella” should be among the most accessible Millikin theater productions for families in recent memory, and will even feature a tea party for kids Sunday afternoon before the matinee, from noon to 2 p.m. in the Lower Richard’s Treat University Center, with seating for up to 200. The cast will be present to show off their characters and the work they’ve done to make them their own.
“Everybody knows this story, so how do we re-create it to let our creativity flow but also not disappoint those kids who are expecting the Cinderella they know and love?” Fox asked. “We make these characters human, finding the truth in Cinderella’s story, in the stepmother’s story or in the prince’s story. It’s not just about the shoe.”