Sir Matthew Bourne, as his many fans know, doesn’t do “traditional.”
The Tony and Olivier-winning British choreographer became an internationally-known sensation with his groundbreaking, all-male imagining of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in 1995; understandably controversial, it was also hugely successful, going on to become the longest-running ballet production in history.
For his “Cinderella,” now onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, he hasn’t pushed things quite that far outside of the box, at least not in terms of gender – although he does swap out the heroine’s fairy godmother with a decidedly male guardian angel. Still, anyone expecting a children’s tale set in a magic kingdom is going to be very much surprised.
Drawing inspiration from Sergei Prokofiev’s score, which was composed during the darkest days of WWII, as well as from the classic British movies he grew up watching on TV, Bourne has reimagined the story as a melancholy romance set against the blitz-ravaged backdrop of wartime London – stripping it down to its bare bones in the process, and building upon it a new, entirely adult story. Instead of a prince, there’s a fighter pilot; instead of a ballroom, a dance hall; instead of a midnight retreat down the steps of the palace, a furtive exit into the nighttime streets after making love.
In this incarnation, Cinderella is a grown-up – a bit of a frumpish plain Jane, at first, but warm and bursting with life. To her stepfamily have been added three brothers as well as the usual sisters – and yes, one of them is gay, keeping up with the out choreographer’s tradition of queer inclusion and visibility. Her sharp-shouldered stepmother is a grandiose, would-be femme fatale, à la Joan Crawford, whose cruelty edges beyond petty jealousy into sadistic, even murderous territory, and her father is a wheelchair-ridden silent husk of a man.
Though it may sound a bit gloomy, Bourne’s “Cinderella” is crafted with the director’s usual blend of charm, whimsy, humor and imagination. His company, New Adventures, is dedicated to “dance theater,” as opposed to ballet, and “theater” is a better description of what you will see here – though the dancing is world-class, to be sure, executed with breathtaking grace and prowess, it’s the performers’ equally-exquisite acting skills that convey the emotional layers that bring the story home.
Add the elegantly theatrical design of Lez Brotherston’s set and costumes, rendered in a palette which slowly blooms from the washed-out grays of a black-and-white film into the technicolor dreamscape that grows around the love story, and Bourne’s cinematic sensibilities transport us wholly into both worlds of his vision – the grim reality of a war-torn home front and the feverish swirl of a romantic fantasy coming to life in its midst.
“Cinderella,” like most of Bourne’s work, is a lushly romantic fantasy, but it’s moored by the bittersweet recognition of inevitable tragedy. A happy ending is by no means a sure thing, here; magic slippers aside, it’s easy to imagine a final parting between Cinderella and her “Prince” from which no guardian angel can save them – and that makes the love story resonate far more deeply. The original “Cinderella” seems to promise eventual rescue from a world of woe, but Bourne suggests instead that we must grab our happily-ever-after in the here-and-now. With bombs falling from the sky, you never know if it’s going to be your last chance.
If Bourne’s “Cinderella” is darker than you might expect, “Witness Uganda,” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, is much lighter. To our western ear, at least, with its preconceptions about Africa, it’s a title that conjures thoughts of distress, danger, and despair – but while those things may encroach around the margins of this “documentary musical” by husbands Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould, its narrative is in fact a tale of hope.
An autobiographical piece exploring Matthews’ real-life experiences as a volunteer in Uganda after being expelled from his church choir for being gay, it follows his efforts to teach a handful of poor children after the education charity for which he was working turned out to be corrupt. As it tells the true – albeit fictionalized “for dramatic purposes” – story of his eventual establishment of the Uganda Project (a non-profit devoted to raising money for the education of his African wards), Matthews’ script takes on wider-ranging issues around the experiences of people of color – not just in Africa, but in America, too – while also focusing on his own efforts to find a place for himself as a queer man.
The narrative is engaging and affecting enough, but it’s the personality of the piece — the sheer, exuberant brightness of it – that stays with you. In a musical score that blends traditional African rhythms and styles with the familiar pop-flavored rock sound of modern musical theatre, Matthews and Gould manage to give expression to myriad voices that have been, all too often, disregarded by the white, heteronormative culture we live in; but these are not the sounds of anger, of bitterness, or of discontent – instead, they are uplifting anthems of endurance, of triumph, of community.
Better still, the cast of “Witness Uganda” brings an explosion of talent to the mix, so much so that the performance space feels almost too small to contain them; led by Jamar Williams (as Griffin) and 12-time Grammy nominee Ledisi, they turn every musical number into a show-stopping powerhouse, while fully and directly connecting with the audience around them. It’s not only breathtaking, it’s inspiring; to see and hear this diverse and enthusiastic ensemble perform these songs is to experience the life-changing power of theatre firsthand.
Their acting is great, too. Williams is engaging and endearing, a perfect queer hero in a role that requires him to neither “butch it up” or be flamboyant – a welcome and much-needed change of pace from the usual gay stereotypes we’ve been trained to accept. Ledisi serves as a kind of high-priestess figure throughout, delivering blockbuster vocals all along the way; Kameron Richardson is compelling as a boy with whom Griffin forms a particularly strong connection, and Amber Iman stands out strong as his older sister and protector; and Emma Hunton is fully of brassy heart as Griffin’s longtime roommate who joins him in his charitable mission.
The biggest stars of the show, though, are Matthews and Gould, who, besides writing and composing, also served as director and musical director, respectively; it’s their ten-year labor of love that comes to life in “Witness Uganda,” from both of their experiences volunteering in Africa, from their passion for musical theater and from their determination to make inclusive, activist theater both for and by marginalized people within the culture. They’ve created a show that deserves – no, demands – to be seen; the Saturday night performance in the small Lovelace Studio Theatre was not full, and it should have been. Grab your tickets and tell a friend.