After a two-year stage hiatus due to COVID, Island Theatre Workshop is turning pumpkins into carriages and mice into noble steeds with the 1957 version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.”
It’s been an extensive and laborious process for ITW director Kevin Ryan, his board, and everyone who has been involved with putting on this major production, especially the cast and crew. “We had been trying to get this show licensed for probably about seven years. I’ve always wanted to do the 1957 version, because it’s really the purest and simplest telling of the story,” Ryan said during a phone conversation with The Times.
In the fall of 2019, for the first time, ITW was approved for a license to produce “Cinderella,” and the board of directors immediately supported doing the show. They paid for licensing, along with the rental of the script and score, and anticipation was building. Then the COVID pandemic hit, and all stage performances across the Island were shut down or postponed. What would have been a summer show in 2020 was tabled.
ITW was able to get a yearlong extension, but the pandemic was still raging in 2021, and the board was forced to delay “Cinderella” again. After another extension, public health guidelines permitted live stage performances, and things began to get moving again. “A lot of the reason we are doing the show in September is because we had pushed back the show for two years and then were not able to get a full week of performance dates that would work for us in August, when we normally have our show,” Ryan said.
The troupe had already cast all principal roles before the pandemic hit, so in the spring of this year, the ITW board was faced with the dilemma of either using the existing cast list or recasting the show entirely. With COVID spreading through the population, and the housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard ongoing, it wasn’t certain whether many of the lead roles would still be available. “We came up with what we thought was a very good solution, which was to open up for auditions all over again, and agreed that anyone who had been cast would be given a front run for an audition in the role they had originally been cast,” Ryan explained. “If their performance during the second audition was acceptable, we would keep them in that role.”
ITW was able to keep about 60 percent of the original cast for “Cinderella,” which Ryan said is remarkable, and speaks to the level of dedication and talent of the performers.
Upon entering the Federated Church of Martha’s Vineyard, where the performers rehearse, the energy is one of family and merrymaking. Those who are busy nailing down their lines are at the center of the room, and other cast members stand nearby and watch with an amused smile, clapping ardently when a scene wraps up. “We have people as old as 80 and as young as 12 in the cast. The overall tone is one of family. It’s a key element in our company — we always say, ‘People first,’ and we really believe that,” Ryan said.
Apart from the willingness to contribute many hours to the cause of honing lines, practicing dance numbers, and working on singing, the entire group of performers is always willing to help out at a moment’s notice. When Ryan needed a crew of folks to help move set pieces into the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center, where the play will be held, a number of people volunteered their time. “Whenever anyone needs help with anything in the group, the only response is, ‘Where and when?’” Ryan said.
Although Ryan is the only official director of “Cinderella,” he said, Brad Austin, a longtime member of ITW who has produced and served as assistant director in a number of other productions, has stepped up to the plate. While Ryan was sick, Austin stepped in to direct at the rehearsals, and is always willing to help out other actors while simultaneously rehearsing his part. “Brad is much more than an assistant director or any kind of support role; Brad is the guy who comes to rehearsals to rehearse his own part, then helps someone else with technique, then steps in for me when I’m not able to be there,” Ryan said.
Adding to the list of talent involved in “Cinderella,” Peter Boak has signed on as the vocal coach, and has been teaching the music to the entire group. Boak does rehearsals at his house when he has singles, solos, or small group rehearsals. Ryan also highlighted the work of musical accompanist Molly Sturges, who has performed with the West Tisbury Congregational Church and the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse for many years. “Using this term feels trite, but she is absolutely a consummate professional. She sits down at that piano and is part of the piano,” Ryan said.
In 2020, ITW lost one of their founders and most beloved members, Lee Fierro, to COVID. Ryan said her death has affected the theater community greatly, and he wants to put on an amazing show this year, in part to celebrate her memory. “We just can’t wait to get out there, we know Lee is still with us. We are going to do this for ourselves, but there is a little bit of ‘let’s do this for Lee,’” Ryan said.
During a visit to one of the rehearsals, The Times spoke to a number of the principal actors in the production. Barbara Binder plays Cinderella’s evil stepmother, and she said she’s had a lot of fun getting into the mindset of her character. “I see the stepmother as definitely evil, but also funny. There is a lot of comedic relief, so it’s not all horrible,” Binder laughed.
Binder has done shows with the Playhouse and some shows at the PAC, including “Hair,” “Spring Awakening,” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Although this is Binder’s first show with ITW, she said she already feels like part of the family, and is enjoying working with her colleagues from the West Tisbury School. “I know Rachel Cook, who plays Cinderella, and Jen Maxner, who plays the fairy godmother. We work together at the West Tisbury School,” Binder explained. Binder is directing the production of “Matilda” at the school, with Cook as the assistant director and Maxner as the lead choreographer.
For Binder, she is confident the show is going to be a crowd-pleaser because of the well-known score and the beautiful and frilly costumes. “I think adults and kids will be totally into it,” she said.
Leandra Seward plays Portia, one of the evil stepsisters, alongside her longtime best friend Lauren Scheffer, who plays evil stepsister Joy. Seward explained that even as kids, she and Scheffer had always wanted to be cast in the evil stepsister roles, and now that dream is finally coming true. “We auditioned together, Lauren and I. We already knew the music, so we kind of just went all out. It’s both of our first principal roles in a production,” Seward said.
Scheffer said she has enjoyed being back in the limelight and doing what she loves, and having her best friend since preschool right beside her the entire time has been a blessing. “Our characters in this production are so fun, the costumes are pretty amazing, and it just feels totally magical,” Scheffer said. “It’s been such a hard few years not being able to sing or perform, but after getting back out there, it feels like we never even left the stage.”
Tim Daniels, who plays Prince Charming, said the last time he performed with ITW was during the “Beauty and the Beast” production years ago. During COVID, Daniels said, he felt some of his outgoingness and confidence being depleted. But with this new opportunity, he is reconnecting with his passions, and reorienting his outlook on life. “During COVID, I had two strokes and a couple of heart attacks. To be honest, I didn’t know if I would be able to memorize lines anymore,” Daniels said. “Coming into this, I kind of dove headfirst and really started to remember the incredible beauty that theater has to offer in terms of the camaraderie, and also just the experience of getting to do things that you wouldn’t normally do in your everyday life.”
Daniels said he is excited to showcase the performance to his two young children, who have been the driving force in his life during a difficult time.
Rachel Cook leads the show as Cinderella, and she said it’s one of the harder roles she has had to play because of how different her personality is from her character’s. “That probably sounds silly, because most people assume that Cinderella is just a Disney princess,” Cook said. “The character is pretty far off from who I am as a person, so I am really acting here.” Although the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of “Cinderella” is a deeper and more substantive telling of the watered-down Disney rendering, Cook stressed that the whole story is still a bit outdated. “Because of this, it’s been challenging for me as an actor to dig deep into this part,” she said. Even still, Cook said she has been having a great time rehearsing, and is excited to get out on stage.
Jen Maxner, who plays the loving and eccentric fairy godmother, said she agrees with Cook that the production doesn’t tell a very contemporary tale, but there are still some gems to take away.
Ultimately, Maxner said, Cinderella grabs her moment and changes her life, and the story arc is driven largely by her, and not by the outdated, conventional male archetype of the prince.
“Doing this show at this time in the world can maybe seem a little odd. It’s very hard to get around the fact that it’s a really old production with some really outdated elements. But the last few lines of the play — ‘impossible things are happening every day,’ that feels like there’s hope. It has been a tough time, but we can still sing and dance and play,” Maxner said.
Island Theatre Workshop’s production of “Cinderella” opens on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center. The show continues on Thursday, Sept. 29, Friday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 1. On Sunday, Oct. 2, a 2 pm matinee will invite members of the community to meet the cast in full costume and take pictures. Following the matinee will be a 7 pm curtain to close out the performances. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit itwmv.org.