In the ballroom of Tacoma’s Merlino Building, Sal Lucente is stomping around in work boots and a frilly yellow dress. Burly and tattooed, he can’t seem to get the dress done up, and the tiny ballet student playing his maid can’t help giggling as he rails and flounces.
But making people laugh is exactly what Tacoma City Ballet’s props builder is hoping to do as Drusilla, one of the ugly sisters in a Pantages production of “Cinderella” this weekend, and that makes the recent live-action movie look thoroughly two-dimensional.
“There’s a lot of comedy,” says director Erin Ceragioli, who choreographed the ballet when the company first performed it in 2006. “It’s basically character dances. And, of course, the spoof is that it’s men (playing) the sisters.”
“I’m Drusilla — I’m the older, meaner, conniving step-sister,” says Lucente. “I did this part in ’06. ... It’s actually difficult to play a woman — I think that’s why it’s funny. I look like an oaf.”
There’s no doubt the ugly sister scenes take “Cinderella” way past the Disney-fied version of this fairytale. Lucente and Travis Goldman, a company dancer and choreographer of about the same build and age as Lucente, are old hands in hamming up character roles thanks to many “Nutcracker” shows. The ballet opens on them snoring open-mouthed in wigs, underwear and decidedly non-beautiful poses, and doesn’t look back.
Adding to the humor is Kate Monthy, the company’s teacher and former Spectrum dancer, playing the mother, who struts around the stage ordering the hapless prince (Joel Myers) and his bewildered royal buddies as they try to pound the slipper onto Lucente’s enormous feet. It’s classic pantomime, made even funnier by the actual ballet choreography danced by Cinderella, her fairy godmother and the host of dragonflies and fairies who get her ready for the ball.
Then there’s the music. Working with local conductor Bernard Kwiram and a newly-engaged orchestra, Tacoma City Ballet is dancing “Cinderella” to the score of 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. While Pacific Northwest Ballet regularly performs Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” this score is far less frequently heard, though filled with the same soaring violins, comic leaps and ominous harmonies.
“I love this score, it’s amazing,” says Kwiram, who has rewritten the entire score to reduce the symphony-sized instrumentation into an orchestra that will fit the Pantages pit. “There’s a lot of virtuoso playing, which makes it exciting. What Prokofiev succeeds in doing is combining the dissonance of 20th-century music with the romanticism of traditional Russian ballet. The love scenes are some of the most beautiful music ever written — but the tunes are virtually unsingable, they’re so angular.”
Prokofiev, who lived through the Stalinist regime, wrote much of “Cinderella” while World War II bombs were dropping around his Moscow home — and you can hear that in the music, says Ceragioli, who followed the composer’s libretto instructions closely.
“It’s darker than (other versions of) the ballet,” she says.
Visually, though, it’s the unique sets, props and costumes that take this version of “Cinderella” far beyond CGI screen magic. While Cinderella herself wears a blue tutu as a nod to Disney fans, other costumes are original: a jewel-box unitard sewn cuff to neck with large studded costume gems, the fluttering apple-green sleeves of the dragonfly costumes made with wafer-thin vintage Japanese silk. Cinderella’s glass slipper was hand-blown by the Museum of Glass’ Hot Shop team, while the pumpkin coach is a completely new creation made by Lucente from convex aluminum strips bolted onto a lightweight, wheelable box frame and covered with glittery mesh fabric that’s orange-and-green one side, sparkly blue-and-white the other. As the costumed mice wheel it around, it turns from tendriled pumpkin into princess coach, complete with steps on the side and silvery seats.
“We had a huge Plexiglass coach for the last production — it had a driving mechanism and could fit four people inside,” says Ceragioli. But you know, the Pantages stage is not so big, so if you put dancers on there too, you were out of room. And it was beautiful, but it didn’t lend itself to turning from a pumpkin.”
Maybe the most unique thing about this “Cinderella,” though, is the scenery. One backdrop is brand-new, painted just recently by a California company to represent Cinderella’s home. The garden and palace scenes, though, are drops painted in 1919 for the old Baptist Seminary theater, and left as trash on the curb outside the Temple Theater about 25 years ago.
“We asked them if we could take them, and they said, ‘Sure, you can have them,’ ” remembers Ceragioli, the director. “So we took them … and they fit the Pantages Theater beautifully.”
Made in an era when scenic drops were handpainted to make use of every optical trick and lighting effect, the drops are stunning. The palace drop, used recently for the company’s “Nutracker” prequel, shimmers with ornate, creamy columns with a remarkably three-dimensional effect. Being nearly a century old, though, they’re starting to shed paint flakes whenever they’re handled. Ceragioli is looking to find an expert who can advise her on how to protect them for the future.
Meanwhile, for this “Cinderella,” the sets are just one ingredient in a ballet that Lucente says everyone enjoys, from Disney fans to ballet lovers.
“People love this ballet,” says Lucente. “When the curtain goes up, they begin laughing. ... They’re howling from the start. And then it’s beautiful — the music, the staccato of the dragonflies, the beautiful ballroom … and the sisters, falling all over themselves and trying to be beautiful. It’s always fun.”