The Other Cinderella

At the Black Ensemble Theater  (BET)

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – For the 43rd time, the Black Ensemble Theater is presenting its African American pop musical version of the Cinderella fairy tale, appropriately titled “The Other Cinderella.”

I’ve attended a bunch of the previous BET productions of the show, accepting the silly story as the price for enjoying some potent singing from the BET stable of powerhouse voices. So I entered the theater on Clark Street prepared to sit through the iffy nonmusical elements of the show in exchange for the let-‘er rip singing that has become such a joyous BET trademark. Maybe my memory was faulty or perhaps the new show has been upgraded. In any case, about 10 minutes into the performance, I realized what I was watching was a terrific, and fresh, all-round production. The dialogue is sassy and droll and the score sounds better than ever in the hands, and vocal chords, of the large cast. In plain words, this is the best “Other Cinderella” I’ve ever seen at the BET.

               Photo Credit: Alan Davis

“The Other Cinderella” takes place in an unnamed land ruled by a king who is anxious to see his son and heir married to establish the line of royal succession. The prince is a low-keyed lad with zero experience  with women. The king, annoyed by his son’s lack of action in the romance arena, declares that he will hold a ball, inviting all the eligible women in the kingdom. He orders his son to pick a female for his wife and end the young man’s bachelor status.

So narrative-wise, the musical follows the traditional fairy tale, introducing downtrodden young Cinderella, kept in bondage by her wicked stepmother and abused by her wicked stepsisters. There is the familiar meeting between the prince and the girl at the ball, her fleeing the dance but leaving an identifying shoe, and the happy ending with prince and Cinderella united. Nothing new there. But a show carried mostly by the quality singing in past years now comes across as crackling with jive wit. The show’s pace is much zippier and the characters more vivid.

“The Other Cinderella” has always been Jackie Taylor’s show. She is the director, wrote the book, composed or co-composed nearly all of the songs (with Michael Ward), and even designed the snazzy all-white costumes that light up the stage. Taylor has also accumulated a 15-member ensemble that sells the show with sassy humor and enthusiasm.

The cast is good from top to bottom but there are a couple of particularly outstanding performances that lead the way. One, unsurprisingly, comes from Rhonda Preston, a terrific all round talent who has deserved wider recognition in the Chicagoland theater community for decades. Preston has a soaring voice, and potent stage presence, and she is a marvelous comedian. She eats up the stepmother role, grabbing us with her belting singing and keeping us laughing with her don’t-mess-with-me facial and physical comedy.

Jayla Williams Craig plays Cinderella. Craig has been in previous BET shows but I have no particular recollection of her. But here she takes the over familiar character of Cinderella and turns her into a three dimensional human being, with real feelings and real grit. Craig’s big vocal moment comes in her solo “Souvenirs,” lamenting the indignity and injustice of her position as the household slavey. Her resentment and anger over her diminished life are palpable, and for the duration of that number the show turn somber and bitter before returning to its comic form. Craig has the voice, looks, and acting chops to make a fine career for herself if she can find the proper exposure.

 Photo Credit: Alan Davis

There is one white character in the cast. She appears out of nowhere as Dorothy, the girl who apparently lost her way to or from the land of Oz. The character has nothing to do with the rest of the show but as a figure of racial satire she is a delight, especially as delivered with down-and-boogie sizzle by Colleen Perry.

Robin DeSilva is a hoot as the fairy stepmother, a lady with Jamaican roots who takes no lip from anyone. The two stepsisters, played by Justis Drakes and Jasmine Bomer, invigorate a pair of stereotypes into nasty young ladies who style their way through their obnoxiousness with fine comic effect. Indeed, women have most of the best roles in the show, but Stewart Romeo had the audience chuckling with his wise guy performance as a guy from the ‘Hood who wins a lottery to serve as a page in the royal court.

As usual, the small band led by percussionist Robert Reddrick accompanies the action with swinging professionalism. Denise Karczewski is the lighting designer, David Samba the sound designer, and Evan Frank the set designer. They all combine, along with Taylor’s costume designs, to make this a first rate aural and visual experience.

It’s Jackie Taylor who put all the pieces together to make “The Other Cinderella” such a winning show. She wears all the important behind the scenes artistic hats and her deep and talented cast has responded beautifully, comically and occasionally emotionally. Anyone seeking an entertaining show for the holiday season minus any Tiny Tims or nutcrackers need seek no further.

“The Other Cinderella” gets a rating of 

“The Other Cinderella” runs through January 19 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Most performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (beginning December 5), Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org.

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