It’s Monday evening at the British School of Beijing’s Sanlitun campus. The cast of Beijing Playhouse are practicing for the premiere of their upcoming show, Cinderella. Choreographer Emma Orr and Musical Director Tanya Davies guide the rehearsal like drill sergeants. The music is punctuated by orders of “No talking in the front row!” or “I don’t want to see limp arms!”
Beijing Playhouse’s first show was a theater adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 2006. Since then, Beijing Playhouse (BP) has performed such Broadway favorites as Guys and Dolls, You Can’t Take It With You, and The Odd Couple. Over 100 cast and crew members are involved in each production, which typically take 18 months to put together.
Though sponsored by the British School of Beijing, Cinderella includes students from a variety of international schools, including Beijing City International School, Western Academy of Beijing, and the International School of Beijing. Children and teenagers make up roughly half of the 24-member cast.
Clocking in at just under two hours, Cinderella is not recommended for children under 6 and is strictly prohibited to those under 4. Though the content is suitable for all ages, very young children are not likely to sit through such a long play. Instead, there will be a meet-the-characters activity for kids under 6, where they will have an opportunity to take pictures with Cinderella, Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother, and more.
Pantomime: A Distinctly British Tradition
Cinderella follows the “true British tradition” of pantomime, or “panto” for short. Traditionally performed around Christmas, pantomimes originated in London’s West End, the British analogue to New York’s Broadway Avenue. They are interactive shows that encourage audience participation, and combine song, dance, theater, slapstick, and double entendres.
The best part of producing a pantomime is the ability to play around with comedy, says Assistant Director Holly Naylor. “In other plays, we sometimes try to hide actors’ weaknesses. Here, we get to play them up.” She cites the Ugly Sisters as an example. They are played by male actors Jack Smith and Karim Oyarzabal, who ad-lib their lines and are encouraged to be over-the-top.
The interactive side of pantomimes can take on many forms, explains British native Emma Orr: “There are catchphrases for the audience to say. Characters throw sweets into the audience and lyrics are projected onto a screen for everyone to sing along.”
Not Your Grandmother’s Cinderella
At first, Cinderella may seem a bit alien to fans of the original fairy tale. This version has an expanded cast of characters, including Cinderella’s father. Dubbed Baron von Bankrup, he is portrayed as an absent-minded man too inept to protect his daughter from the rest of the family. The Ugly Sisters are renamed Cholera and Rubella after the diseases. The heroine herself takes on the alias Princess Bella to attend the royal ball.
One of the most significant additions to the cast is Mr. Buttons, who acts as a narrator and audience facilitator. Played by 12-year-old BSB student Michael Li, Mr. Buttons is in charge of guiding audience participation.
The Fairy Godmother gets a gritty reboot; she stars in a musical number called the “Fairy Godmother Rap” and is backed up by a gang of fairies-in-training. Most of Cinderella’s young actors play two or three different roles, such as dogs, courtiers, court attendants, and villagers who double as the chorus.
Despite these additions, the plot of Cinderella remains intact. All the classic elements are there: Cinderella is persecuted by her stepfamily, sneaks into the royal ball with the help of a Fairy Godmother, dances with Prince Charming, leaves behind a glass slipper, and causes the prince to launch a kingdom-wide search for her.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Rehearsals for Cinderella take place four times a week, and last three to six hours depending on the day. Once a week, there’s a musical rehearsal in which the actors focus on song and dance routines rather than scenes. Cinderella’s musical repertoire contains popular songs with re-written lyrics, like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” and “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. The familiarity of these songs to English-speaking audiences enhances the interactive nature of the play. Since pantomimes must appeal to all ages, the song and dance routines are kept simple. “The choreography is nothing complicated,” explains Orr. “It’s meant to help tell the story and add energy, not to show off fancy dance moves.
For Daniella Novales of the Philippines, the musical numbers are the most challenging part of the show. On one hand, she says, “I like the musical numbers. They’re different from Broadway musicals, because there’s normal music too.” On the other hand, she and many of the other students must juggle deadlines for exams with rehearsals.
Chiffon, Crinolines, and Gold Thread
One of the most striking features of the show is the costume design. Since many of the actors play multiple roles, Cinderella requires a dizzying number of costume changes. Most of the young actors undergo two or three; the stepsisters change up to seven times. Some costumes, like the fairies’ dresses, are recycled from previous Beijing Playhouse productions. Many, however, were drawn out by the show’s costume designer Xu Xin and made over a period of several weeks. In total, there are 40 to 50 costumes.
Xu Xin and Stephannie Tebow (aka the Fairy Godmother) are hard at work during rehearsals, pinning and resizing dresses for some of the younger actresses. “The fitting is very difficult because there are so many ages,” says Xu Xin. “Sometimes an adult dress has to be made smaller for a kid, or vice versa.”
Costume materials include chiffon, netting, cotton, and brocade. The fairies’ dresses have puffy crinolines and shiny bodices in blue, pink, and yellow pastels. The ballgowns feature liberal amounts of gold thread over red, cream, and ochre fabrics. For the Stepmother, Xu Xin came up with a color scheme of black, purple, and red to convey the character’s cruel nature. Similarly, the Ugly Sisters’ dresses feature “noisy” colors like grey, orange, and yellow with black stripes to evoke wasps or hornets.
Fostering Young Actors
For US natives Aidan Emerson (8) and Michelle Li (9), the best part of being in Cinderella is a no-brainer. “I like it because it’s really fun,” says Aidan.
“The best part is being with my friends,” agrees Michelle. “Some people make me laugh, and others make me laugh even more.”
Several cast members are returning Beijing Playhouse actors. Emerson took part in one of the company’s theatre camps for kids. His first show was The Wizard of Oz. This time around, he plays the Page, the Prince’s royal servant.
Others, like Li, have previous singing and acting experience, but this is their first show with Beijing Playhouse. Li, a student at BSB, plays Alice the dog, Cinderella’s canine companion. She inspired herself from three dogs that her family used to own. Li is all smiles off stage, but quickly assumes a game face when asked about her role. “When it’s business, it’s business,” the 9-year-old declares.
“In a way, some of these kids got to grow up with Beijing Playhouse,” says Naylor. At 14, Novales is already a company veteran. She has been acting with the theater troupe since the age of 8. In this production, she gets to tackle the part of an old woman named Princess Gladys, as well as a villager and a fairy.
Are the actors nervous about Cinderella’s impending premiere? “A little bit,” says Novales. “But when I get on stage, I feel like I can do anything.”
Adapted by Robin Bailes and directed by Michael Gralapp. For tickets, call 6538 4716. RMB 300, RMB 260 (advance), RMB 150 (students and kids), RMB 130 (students and kids advance). Time TBD. Trojan House Theater (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Meet the Characters of Cinderella
For ages 0-5. Free. 12.15-12.45pm. Trojan House Theater (email@example.com) www.beijingplayhouse.com