Review: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (with Deaf Austin Theatre) by Zach Theatre
by Michael Meigs

Trey Harrington, Sandra Mae Frank (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

Produced with the Zach Theatre's usual exuberance and technical elegance, the production of Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is a memorable evening of theatre. The audience's wildly enthusiastic reaction on opening weekend certainly confirmed that. This production also surprises and intrigues as an educational experience, thanks to the remarkable and inventive collaboration with Deaf Austin Theatre and the charismatic performances of Sandra Mae Frank and additional actors who are deaf or hard of hearing.


The story is ancient and variations are told all over the world. This production draws on Charles Perrault's 1697 version, the one with the fairy godmother and the pumpkin coach that's so familiar to European and American audiences. It has been reworked countless times, of course; the source material here is the 90-minute work that Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II created for a 1957 television broadcast featuring Julie Andrews.



Mervin Primeaux-O'Bryan, Sandra Mae Frank (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

Their libretto and score were chewed over and reformulated several times for television and for the stage; Zach and DAT use Douglas Carter Beane's 2013 two-act rewrite emphasizing social justice themes--for example, orphaned prince Christopher ("Topher"), not yet of age, is exploited by Sebastian, his corrupt regent counselor. There's a distinctly Disney cast to it, for the villains are extravagantly wicked, the protagonists beam with goodness, exploited townspeople win triumphantly in non-violent protests, and Cinderella exhorts everyone to practice kindness. And there's happy ever after for all, even for the baddies.


No objection to that! It's a fairytale, we know the story and how it turrns out, and we love seeing virtue rewarded. Most of the musical numbers are forgettable, but a couple of them in Act II—"Stepsister's Lament" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful"—do shine.


In order to bring together deaf actors with speaking/singing actors in a musical, directors Michael Barron (for Zach Theatre) and Brian Cheslik (for Deaf Austin  Theatre) crafted sophisticated, varied storytelling techniques that give almost all audience members, hearing or not, full access to the story. Perhaps the most disadvantaged in the house are some of the youngest spectators, those unable to follow American Sign Language (ASL) but not yet posssessing the reading skills to decipher the titles projected above the action. 


Mervin Primeaux-O'Bryan (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)Vivacious Sandra Mae Frank as Ella performs entirely in ASL; so does Mervin Primeaux-O'Bryan in the dual roles of Marie the shabby beggar woman and Cinderella's fabulously extravagant fairy godmother. The lyrics of Ella's vocals are projected as supertitles; for some songs the vocal line is performed by one of the strings, probably a viola, and  for others, a speaking actor onstage provides the singing voice.


Trey Harrington as the stalwart, well-meaning Prince Topher performs as a singer/speaker and/or a signer. He's a CODA prince, an acronym unexplained in the director's note in the program: Child of Deaf Adult. Other deaf actors in the cast are capable of speech, and their lines appear simultaneously as projections. And, as the directors note, 


you will see moments of spoken English with no ASL support, moments of ASL with no vocal support, and English text support is given throughout the show by providing you with supertitles. It took a team of magically talented designers, both Deaf and hearing, to create the world that you are about to see.


For a theatre fan, the evening is both intriguing and disorienting. As a hearing person, I was experiencing something intentionally analogous to the world as experienced by a deaf person. Ordinarily rapt in an imagined world presented onstage, throughout this evening I came across gaps and distractions. Following supertitles here wasn't the same as seeing them projected at an Austin Opera production, for I had the insistent but almost-impossible-to-realize desire to witness the simultaneous ASL rendition by the actor.


At the interrmission, pondering this new understanding, I looked around and had other new knowledge reinforced: American Sign Language is highly effective for remote communication. ASL signers easily carry out conversations across impressive distances, because their language is visual. 


(photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


The comic highlight of the show is Sarah Burke doing a wildly funny comic turn as Charlotte, the less favored of Ella's stepsisters. In red wig, spectacles, and lime-green gown, she squalls, complains, does adorable pratfalls throughout the action. "Stepsister's Lament" at the start of Act II breaks through the earlier restraint of the score to deliver drama, impressively lively choreography, and laughs. She's like Carol Burnett at her best.


Meredith McCall, Kenny Williams Jr (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


And a word for the wicked—both Kenny Williams, Jr. as the prince's regent and Meredith McCall as Madame the wicked stepmother ham it up  just enough. Beane's script gives them no depth, but they luxuriate in their badness, delivering it almost with a grin. If Williams had a long mustache, he'd be twirling it constantly; McCall has a self-congratulating smirk not dissimilar to that of Ursula in DIsney's The Little Mermaid. When all is settled concerning Ella's marriage, Madame asks for forgivenness without a touch of regret. Sebastian the counselor escapes unscathed, apparently without any reproaches for wrongdoing.


Ella's injunction to practice kindness comes close to the finale, but the real theme of this production of Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella comes shortly before that, when Mervin Primeaux-O'Bryan, an audience favorite as the fairy godmother, sends Ella to the prince's banquet with memorable advice.


Move a mountain
Light the sky
Make a wish come true—
There is music in you


The magic maker of this fairytale delivers that message four times in his/her solo: There's music in you. But no one hears it, for in this evocative production, There's music in you appears only in ASL and in written words.


We all have the music, whether we can hear it or not.



Click to view the online posting of the program for Zach Theatre's production of Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.




Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (with Deaf Austin Theatre)
by Richard Rodgrs, Oscar Hammerstein II
Zach Theatre

January 25 - March 05, 2023
Zach Theatre
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704

January 25–March 5, 2023

Wednesdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

The Topfer at ZACH | 202 South Lamar  | Austin, TX | 78704
Tickets are $25 - $95, available at ZACH’s box office – 512-476-0541 x1,

Special Event in celebration of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella:

  • Pride Night on Thursday, January 26, 2023


Though masks are optional at ZACH Theatre at this time, wearing a high-quality mask (KF94, KN95, or better) is encouraged as it can provide individuals with additional protection. 

The health and safety of our ZACH family has always been our first priority, and we will continue to monitor risk levels in Austin and update our policies in accordance with CDC and Austin Public Health guidelines.  

Find a complete list of ZACH’s Health & Safety commitments, please visit