‘Ever After’ world premiere at Paper Mill turns film into musical

“Ever After,” a new version of the Cinderella story based on a 1998 movie now turned into a major musical by the Paper Mill Playhouse, must have Broadway aspirations with Kathleen Marshall at the helm, Christine Ebersole as the evil step-mother, James Snyder as the Prince and much of the super talented cast boasting Broadway credits.

And wow, can they sing and dance with Marshall (who has 17 Broadway musicals on her resume) also handling the choreography. Paper Mill is known for mounting big, lush musicals but has outdone itself this time with the world premiere of “Ever After,” which features a book and lyrics by Marcy Heisler and music by Zina Goldrich.

Both Ebersole (two-time Tony winner for “42nd Street,” “Grey Gardens”) and Charles Shaughnessy (a Broadway producer in TV’s “The Nanny”) received entrance applause from the very appreciative opening night audience Sunday.

What this female driven endeavor doesn’t have is a character named Cinderella, a magical fairy godmother, mice who sew ball gowns, or a pumpkin carriage. There is a sparkly pair of shoes, but no glass slipper.

Instead we have Leonardo da Vinci (Tony Sheldon, Tony nominee for “Priscilla Queen of the Desert) a sort of life coach to the Cinderella equivalent, Danielle (Margo Seibert, who made her Broadway debut last year in “Rocky” as as Adrian).

This family drama takes place in 16th-century France but with a 21st-century feminist attitude as Danielle is her own woman who reads Thomas More’s “Utopia,” has a mind of her own, doesn’t like the gap between rich and poor, and has no interest in love (“A knight in shining armor, is just another thing to dust,” she sings in “Who Needs Love?”) — until she falls in love with a man far above her servant station — Prince Henry (Snyder, who just closed in “If/Then” opposite Idina Menzel) whom she catches trying to steal a horse.

The show also doesn’t have a single stand-out number among its 23 songs. The  comical ensemble piece “Is There Anything Leonard Can’t Do?” led by Captain Laurent (Charl Brown, making his Paper Mill debut) is fun and very precisely staged, but it’s not a stand-alone song or cabaret material. All the songs are well-crafted, but don’t have that extra oomph that makes them soar.

Ebersole, as the uncaring step-mother Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent, and Julie Halston (“You Can’t Take It With You” and “On The Town,” as Queen Marie of France, have the best one-liners and deliver them with great expertise. Shaughnessy,  who insists his son mary a princess from Spain, spends much of the show being frustrated by his son’s refusal to marry someone he doesn’t love rather than do his duty.

The show drags a bit toward the end of the second act, which is why I guess marauding gypsies appear out of nowhere for the rousing “All Hail the Gypsy Queen” dance number. But I’m really perplexed why Danielle attends the King’s Ball wearing fairy wings on her gown. And I was very surprised that master fight director Rick Sordelet’s swordplay was so tepid and restrained. He is a pioneer in this area and world-renown for his skill.

The production is lovely to look at (although it looks like part of the set is left over from the previous “Hunchback of Notre Dame”) so kudos to Tony Award-winning set designer Derek McLane, Tony Award-winning costume designer Jess Goldstein, and Tony Award-winning lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski.

Is the show ready for Broadway? I don’t think so. Too  many secondary characters distract from the main story, which needs more focus, and the score needs more pizzazz.  But if judged by voices alone, it’s a winner.

Every show staged at Paper Mill doesn’t need to have Broadway as its final destination. No regional theater can do that. Paper Mill consistently offers, as shown with “Ever After,” a Broadway caliber performance for New Jersey theatergoers and reverse bridge-and-tunnel crowds.

“Newsies” made its debut at Paper Mill before Disney Theatrical Productions took it to Broadway where it earned two Tonys, though not for best musical, and had a long run. Earlier this year “Honeymoon in Vegas” moved into town, got a rave review from the NYTimes, but failed to thrive and closed before the Tony Awards were even announced.

Paper Mill’s 2014-15 season also included the U.S. premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” another Disney Theatrical Productions venture.  inspired by the classic Victor Hugo novel and created for the stage by composer Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Newsies,” “Pocahontas”) and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Pippin”). It is not scheduled to move to Broadway.’