Playwright: Jackie Taylor. At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: $55-$65. Runs through: Jan. 8
Once upon a time, an ambitious young girl living in the projects vowed to escape poverty for a better life, so she wrote a musical about an ambitious young girl living in the Projects who vows to escape to a better life. Is there a theatergoer in Chicago who doesn't recognize in this story Jackie Taylor, founder and artistic director of Black Ensemble Theater ( BET ), or the show that launched a thriving company still drawing audiences after 40 years?
The source of our play's story is the Eurocentric tale of a poor girl whose beauty and virtuewith the assistance of some supernatural interventionare rewarded by marriage to a king's son. In the realm of Other, however, Cinderella is an abused daughter forced to drop out of school in order to serve as housekeeper for a stepmother who favors her own kin over the foster child she disparages at every opportunity. The family dynamic of Other's Royal Highnesses is no less troubled, what with the heir to the throne's antipathy for social banter with the opposite sex, despite pressure from his gruff sire to choose a consort. Our story, in Shakespearean tradition, also features commonersan immigrant traveler, a refined palace servant and a newly hired Court Page from the 'hood.
The current production reflects the evolution of a script keeping with the times over four decades: the question of the prince's sexual orientation is addressed overtly, if briefly, before being dismissed as irrelevant to his ability to rule. The party-crasher is, as in the original, Dorothy of Kansas, who not only secures the Otherese citizenship she seeks, but also wins the heart of the strait-laced royal valet. This interracial romance makes for the excision of "White Girl Blues" from the 2016 playlist, but it introduces several new songs to augment favorites, like Cinderella's poignant "Don't Bring Me No Souvenirs" and Fairy Godmama's Caribbean-tempo "You Make De Wish." Robert Reddrick's stage band is still worth its weight in goldand speaking of gold, Rueben Echoles' shimmery gowns for Cindy and her sorceress-benefactor are fully as enchanting as befit their magical manufacture, as is this year's Idris Elba-lookalike limo-driver.
A cast encompassing BET regulars as well as relative newcomers ( notably, Kyle Smith as the streetwise Page ), likewise, generate warmth and effervescence with never a trace of fatigue. First-time audiences at Black Ensemble may be initially startled at the broad, almost cartoonish, tone of this Chicago holiday celebrationbut what are fairy tale fantasies for, if not unstinting cheer to chase away winter's darkness?