The deus ex machina is alive and well, and when he appears out of nowhere near the end of “Bad Cinderella,” he nearly rescues this troubled new musical that opened Thursday at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. Surprisingly, for a show based on the Cinderella fairy tale, he is named Prince Charming. And in the person of Cameron Loyal, who makes an outrageous Broadway debut here, this god is a hilarious send-up of overripe gay male porn stars.
Oh yes, and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the music.
It has been quite a season on Broadway for LGBTQ characters. Despite musicals being the great gay art form, there have been precious few queer characters who sing for our pleasure in the standard repertory of tuners. If you don’t count Bobby in “Company,” there is only one in Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre, and he is the supporting character of Hollis Bessemer in “Road Show,” the master’s last fully completed musical. This season, Broadway is playing catch-up with major queer characters in “& Juliet” and “Some Like It Hot” and now “Bad Cinderella.” The difference with Loyal’s Prince Charming is that he’s not some pathetic trope created to make us weep for his plight in life. He is meant to be a joke – and the only one in this show that manages to deliver a long, sustained roar of laughter from the audience.
A lot of jiggering with the Cinderella story has been done to come up with a Prince Charming who is not only gay (and ridiculously buff) but delivers the 11 o’clock reprise of the song “Man’s Man.” Frankly put, the mess of the “Bad Cinderella” writer credits (“original story & book by Emerald Fennell” and “book adaptation by Alexis Scheer”) extends to what transpires on stage. Fennell and Scheer have bought into the Disney princess formula, which dictates that the young heroine be spunky, strong and outspoken. In other words, she is already perfect and doesn’t need anybody, much less a man to love her. It’s significant that Lloyd Webber and lyricist David Zippel give their big love song, “Only You, Lonely You,” not to Cinderella (Linedy Genao) but her love interest, Prince Sebastian (Jordan Dobson in great voice), whom she keeps at arm’s length.
Lloyd Webber and Zippel write them like they used to. Critics have never embraced his music, but audiences appreciate the melodic tradition he represents, Lloyd Webber being the last survivor of an unabashed romanticism that goes back to Frederick Loewe, Franz Lehar and Giacomo Puccini. With songs like “Memory” from “Cats” and now “Only You, Lonely You,” this composer writes music that circumvents the brain to go straight to the heart. In “Bad Cinderella,” the Act 2 opening ballet, “The Wedding March,” is right out of a Lehár operetta, and the contest of one-upsmanship “I Know You” between the Queen (a ditsy Grace McLean) and the Stepmother (a strident Carolee Carmello) is a novel spin on “I Remember It Well” from Lerner and Loewe’s “Gigi.”
Lloyd Webber and Zippel have far more trouble writing anything memorable for their pouty heroine, her big female empowerment anthem given the generic title “Cinderella’s Soliloquy.” But Genao delivers it with all the alarm-bell power that aficionados of “Defying Gravity” and “Let It Go” have come to honor with an immediate ovation.
This bad Cinderella begins promisingly as a kind of Banksy artist who goes around defacing royal statues in her beauty-obsessed village. The townspeople hate her because she’s not pretty. They have a point: Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes and Luc Verschueren’s wigs turn Genao into Courtney Love from her grunge period, which could be considered hip if we were seeing “Bad Cinderella” in the year 1993 and not 2023. Since this Cinderella is a portrait in independence and self-confidence, her love interest Prince Sebastian quickly emerges as the needy one; and blessed with “Only You, Lonely You,” Dobson walks away singlehandedly with our sympathy. (Dobson also charmed in Ivo van Hove’s Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” as an understudy, the only credible Tony I have ever seen on stage or screen.)
When the Godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson channeling the Witch from “Into the Woods”) gives Cinderella her big makeover, we’re meant to see the transformation as a bad thing – there are intimations of cosmetic surgery gone wild – and it is bad in every way possible. Here, Tylesova’s costume and Verschueren’s wig deliver the redundancy of an ersatz Lady Gaga.
Laurence Connor’s direction of the musical is fussy when it needs clarity. Especially unfocused is JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography for the big beefcake production number “Hunk’s Song,” followed by “Man’s Man,” which are pale imitations of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” from the movie version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
In the end, if Prince Sebastian is the one pursuing Cinderella, and she’s the one rejecting him for reasons never explained, who cares if this young female outcast-rebel ever makes it to the ball? Our heroine finally shows up at the palace doused with enough glitter to blind RuPaul, and since he’s not wearing protective eye gear, Prince Sebastian doesn’t recognize her. His failure provokes the kind of bratty hissy-fit from Genao that would force any responsible Bachelor to banish his Cinderella from the fantasy suite way before the final rose.
It’s a wonder this prince doesn’t follow his big brother’s lead and end up with a nice, simple, compliant chorus boy.