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Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' at the Ahmanson Theatre

Andrew Monaghan (center) and company | Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella (playing at the Ahmanson Theatre until March 10), with music by Prokofiev, takes place in London in the early 1940s. Before any music, any movement, an instructional video from the time represented is shown about what to do if and when a bomb drops from the sky. “Don’t look up.” “Head for the underground.” “Mind the sirens.” The screen the film was projected on lifts, and a grand, grey set is revealed.

I was immediately taken aback by how expressive the dancers’ facial expressions were–reminiscent of the facial expressions of silent film stars. The costumes are monochromatic–different shades of grey. The sound effects, staging, and prop-use are incredibly cinematic. It was easy to forget you were watching a live performance and not an old black and white movie about finding love in the midst of World War II.

Many of the story’s classic pillars are still there: Cinderella’s stepsisters are cartoonishly mean; Cinderella’s father, in his wheelchair, is heartbreakingly cast aside while his wife and her family enjoy a life of lavish frivolity; and the prince (in this iteration he’s a soldier) meets Cinderella and is taken with her immediately only to lose track of her (this time due to a head injury thanks to the war, not because the clock strikes midnight and Cinderella needs to rush home before her carriage turns into a pumpkin) with not a clue left behind as to who she could be save for one sparkling heel.

1940s London has little use for a fairy godmother, but a devilishly handsome angel who takes on the role of fate fits right in. Not only does he guide Cinderella to her soldier, he also encourages the city’s inhabitants to dance as if they could die tomorrow–they could. Bourne is the same creative mind who brought us Swan Lake featuring male swans. A Beauty School Dropout Teen Angel posing as Cinderella’s fairy godmother only makes sense.

The performance is presented in three acts; there are two intermissions.

I had the privilege of sitting next to two elderly sisters from London. They were six and nine in 1940. They were done up in two different shades of bright blue: turquoise and royal with the eye shadow to match. They both wore slippers. One lived in Los Angeles, the other still in London. The sister who lives in London had been visiting for five weeks. This show was how they chose to end her stay. They were proud to be there.  

During the two intermissions we were given (after meeting my new friends, I wished there were more) I’d talk to them about what it was like to be a little girl during World War II. They’d seen the introductory video, they’d seen many different versions. When a bomb would go off during the show and the sirens would sound, they would quiver.

I asked them if they were scared every day.

The sister in royal blue, the younger sister, said “Yes. She wasn’t, though. She didn’t have a clue what was going on.”

The way Sister Turquoise would shiver at the sound effects I would have guessed differently. But something tells me “not having a clue” and being the brave older sister might have been the same thing at the time.  

The older sister loved the role of The Angel. She told me that you’d think nobody would be partying or dancing in the early 1940s, but everyone really did have a good time, just like The Angel encouraged. “Dance the night away because tomorrow’s not guaranteed, and that kind of thing.”

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella is fantastic. I was swept away to a terrifying, lively time in history where the only real choice one had was to dance with abandon and surrender one's self to the hunky angel of fate.

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