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'Cinderella' has beauty but not depth

BEVERLY -- North Shore Music Theatre's opening of ``Cinderella" completes the story of the theater's recovery from last season's fire. It was on the fourth night of last summer's production of ``Cinderella" that flames broke out, shutting down the show and the theater for more than three months. Not only did North Shore Music Theatre reopen, but it committed to finding a place in this year's schedule to run the musical again.

Yet of all the shows in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, ``Cinderella" is among the least compelling. The North Shore Music Theatre production is beautifully crafted, but it's a show with emotions stuck in low gear.

Director Charles Repole compounds the problem by serving up a too- even-tempered production. Not a single character stands out amid the beauty. Once the awe wears off over the wonderful pumpkins that turn into carriages and mice that turn into coachmen, there's still a second act with only mildly engaging music and dialogue to come.

Deborah Lew plays a new-millennium Cinderella: There's a lot of self-actualization percolating in her and just a bit of church mouse to eradicate. It's a choice, however, that leaves little room for comparison between her life pre- and post-prince. Lew's vocals are astonishingly clear, and she graciously stays away from pop stylings. The song she sings all on her own is the sweet ``In My Own Little Corner," but it is in a short, simple verse in ``Lovely Night" that Lew's voice sounds the most melodious.

Ryan Silverman plays the prince, and while their voices are evenly matched, he and Lew are lacking in the onstage-chemistry department. Hovering around are the king (David Coffee) and queen (Terry Burrell) in forgivably cartoonish roles, but with unforgivably warbly voices.

Maureen Brennan plays Cinderella's godmother with so much impishness that she often seems apologetic for her magic, but Brennan's energy is ultimately well placed as she flits across the stage. The ever-watchable Lisa McMillan plays Cinderella's stepmother, and is rarely without her two unlovely daughters, Joy (Joyce Chittick) and Portia (Natalie Joy Johnson). The trio should be a source of humor, but even their characterizations are low-key. When did playing a stepsister become a nuanced role? As Joy, Chittick is particularly subdued in delivering her lines, which conflicts with all the potential physical humor she brings to the role. Johnson fares a bit better as the dim yet determined Portia.

The artistic teams that work at North Shore Music Theatre seem to revel in dreaming up solutions that work on a stage in the round, with no walls or curtains. This challenge generates theatrical magic of the highest order, especially when mixed with magic already embedded in the ``Cinderella" story line.

But no amount of wishing can give Rodgers and Hammerstein's milquetoast musical the dash of depth it really needs. Karen Azenberg's choreography provides a tremendous infusion of complexity and elegance, as do the costumes designed by Joanna E. Murphy. Many elements of this production beautifully survived last year's fire, but what's onstage now could still use a little more spark.

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