The addition of “bad” to the title of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest maximalist spectacle, formerly known simply as “Cinderella” when it premiered for a short-lived run on the West End in 2021, would seem like a cleverly self-conscious move. Was it preemptive self-defense against Broadway reviews like this one, that would apply aesthetic judgment to the musical’s gauche bonanza of too-muchness? Would its version of Cinderella be — you know, a bad girl, but in a sexually liberated (and feminist!) way? Or was it a rare bit of truth in advertising?
To clear up the obvious question, “Bad Cinderella,” which opened at the Imperial Theater Thursday night, isn’t good. Composed by Webber and with lyrics by David Zippel, it is a muddled and momentum-less retooling of the familiar fairy tale in search of a coherent point of view as if it were a glass-slippered foot. The book, originally written by Emerald Fennell, the Oscar winning screenwriter of “Promising Young Woman,” and adapted for Broadway by the playwright Alexis Scheer, is an illogical head-scratcher, despite being based on a story most everyone knows. “Bad Cinderella,” directed here by Laurence Connor (“School of Rock”), even manages to gleefully reinforce the chronic social fixations — on beauty, vanity and wealth — that it purports to deem toxic.
But it is also very horny, which is its primary claim to fun. You could hardly expect the townspeople of Belleville, who introduce themselves in a gyrating opening number called “Buns ‘n’ Roses/ Beauty Is Our Duty,” not to be juiced up and ready to cavort. Clad in a psychedelic fever dream of sexed-up Ancien Regime silhouettes (by costume and set designer Gabriela Tylesova), they are shallow, dumb and single-mindedly obsessed with being hot.
“Wrinkles are not tolerated, torsos must be tanned,” they decree, smizing to the back row. “Acne is a misdemeanor/ cellulite is banned.”
Indifference to appearances would seem to set our heroes apart; the vapid mob calls Cinderella (Linedy Genao) “Bad Cinderella” because she supposedly doesn’t care about looks — she even vandalized a memorial to Prince Charming (who’s gone AWOL while dragon slaying) with the treasonous slogan “beauty sucks.” The younger prince Sebastian (Jordan Dobson) is also considered a puny eyesore in comparison to his strapping older brother, the memory of whom transforms even their mother, the Queen (Grace McLean), into a drool-face emoji.
Of course, “bad” is a misnomer for Cinderella, whose “sky high IQ” and “style all her own” are meant to signal her virtue. But she is also, as portrayed here by Genao, obviously and objectively beautiful. Which is worth noting only because the entire reconceived plot of “Bad Cinderella” insists that its heroine is an ugly duckling. Cinderella’s moment of weakness — when she admits that she wants to be hot just like everyone else, and visits the town Godmother and cosmetologist (Christina Acosta Robinson) for a ball-worthy makeover — amounts to a wig change.
Let’s grant, for argument’s sake, that Cinderella’s “alarming” spiky updo and drab leather jacket constitute grounds for social exile (the wig and hair design by Luc Verschueren is excellent). She and Prince Sebastian are childhood besties and already in love, so what stands in their way for two and a half hours? The answer has something to do with Cinderella’s Stepmother (Carolee Carmello, the production’s indispensable crown jewel) threatening to out the Queen as a fellow ex-courtesan and social climber, a “Real Housewives of Versailles” rivalry that delivers the wickedly satisfying diva duet “I Know You.” (“Nobody likes jokes!” Cinderella’s Stepmother spits at her; if only the script gave the cunning and delightful Carmello more of them.)
“Bad Cinderella” also presumes to know what a sizable fraction of its audience wants, and panders to them shamelessly with varying degrees of success. For those who are thirsty (but mostly the gays), there’s the chorus of barechested, leather-harnessed hunks, who mug and flex in a homoerotic number pining for their lost Adonis (the sensually modern choreography is by JoAnn M. Hunter). And when (spoiler alert) Prince Charming (Cameron Loyal) returns to resolve the mismatched marriage plot, he’s built like a truck and accompanied by a lover (Ben Lanham) he might as well bench-press to the altar. It’s a gay-us ex machina moment contrived for maximum squeal effect, but the jarring celebration of queerness rings hollow in a show otherwise enthralled to convention, because Prince Charming and his brawny bod are emphatically held up as the height of masculinity.
And Cinderella’s mistake isn’t longing to be hot (as the show readily admits, who doesn’t?), but — not forgiving Sebastian for calling her basic when she finally fits in? (That all three of the young principals are played by non-white actors is refreshing, but opting not to address race directly in a story about obsession with appearances feels like a deliberate side-step.)
The book, which also draws winky inspiration from the union of another “spare” prince to a lay outsider, wanly attempts to sound hip with the occasional “yaas,” while Zippel’s often hokey lyrics resound with “I’m a cool mom” energy (“Toodleloo!” Cinderella coos; “I’ve no excuse, I’ve got to vamoose!” Sebastian replies). “Bad Cinderella” at least offers a viable framework for a few of Webber’s signature power ballads, designed to showcase blunt sentiment and athletic vocals, which Genao and Dobson both deliver with rousing and admirable confidence.
But as the Webber production’s requisite turntable spins and spins, it’s easy to wonder who this new fable is for and what revised moral it aims to impart. If “every great disaster has a villain,” as the hot people of Belleville claim, maybe the villain, in this case, is us. For not-so-secretly wanting to be admired ourselves, and to see our vanity endlessly reflected back to us. And for so often rewarding creators for rehashing old stories while vainly expecting the unexpected.