Necessity is the unwed mother of invention, and invention is the bastard son of the theater, boldly forcing the medium where no dramatist has gone before. Antithetical to most community and semiprofessional theater, which tend toward smaller casts and manageable payrolls, theater for youth is often aimed at involving an entire oversized class of 30 to 40 students. The result is either to give in to the scripts that divvy the lines up evenly, avoiding substance and depth of character, or to turn teachers, directors and parents into playwrights.
Tobias Severn and Anastasia Matkin have been there and done that. The founders and directors of the Pikes Peak Youth Theatre were dissatisfied with the available scripts for Cinderella, so they took matters into their own hands and wrote a script tailormade for their production goals. Their adaptation may not have August Wilson looking over his shoulder at the competition, but for the purposes of their new theater company, it fits like a glass slipper.
Their first interesting diversion is the inclusion of some back story. In a pre-Brady Bunch era, before Carol Brady told her clan that the only steps in their house were the ones leading to the second floor, we could easily accept the notion of evil stepmothers and stepsisters without wondering whatever happened to Cinderella's real mother and father. Severn and Matkin, however, give Cinderella some context in a prologue showing the young child's adoring relationship with her father on the eve of his second marriage.
The best innovation, however, is the added business between scenes that Severn and Matkin devise to fill the space during set changes. Employing a pair of characters, Nicolas and Cristobal, as a post-modern chorus, Severn and Matkin break through the theatrical convention of the fourth wall, confronting the comic characters with a set crew dressed in black whisking away the family furniture with the efficient professionalism of seasoned house burglars. "Does that belong to you?" Nicolas asks a pair of stagehands striking the couch before panic ensues when Cristobal disappears behind a revolving wall that transforms the set to the castle for the ball. This reflexive approach to the tale, stepping out of the story and establishing an additional perspective based on an ironic awareness of the storytelling conventions, elevates the deadest moments of the play into the evening's greatest comic innovations.
Dan Tantanella and Scott McDowell steal the show as Nicolas and Cristobal, adding an unpredictable energy to scenes left open for improvisation. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the cast, somewhere between Stoppard and Shakespeare, broadening the scope of the tale and refreshing their audience. After a set change or two, their material starts wearing thin, but they elevate the evening again when they make their way through the audience, trying to stuff unsuspecting feet into Cinderella's slipper and hinting at the play's potential to weave its audience into the fabric of the narrative.
The principal characters, Cinderella and her steps, have much less interesting material to work with, but they prove themselves more than capable of slipping into the exaggerated caricatures of fairy tale. Courtney Przybylski as the stepmother and Kristin Brooks and April Celotto as her two daughters are so over-the-top wicked it's scary. There are no bashful performances among these characters, and they consistently make risky choices in creating characters who are vivid in their wonderfully one-dimensionality.
The trio also serves to offset Beth Tantanella's more subtle performance in the title role. As a serving girl to her steps, she is largely silent, but Tantanella is always active in listening and reacting to the business around her. She is radiant after her evening with the prince, clearly embodying a dramatic change in character while silently upstaging the rest of the cast as we wait until her prince finally comes.