The world premiere of "Cinderella and Fella" features (from left) Terry Burrell at Step Mom, Molly Coyne as Vamnesia, Brian Walker as Lavoris, and India S. Tyree as Cinderella. Photo: Greg Mooney.
The world premiere of “Cinderella and Fella” features (from left) Terry Burrell at Step Mom, Molly Coyne as Vamnesia, Brian Walker as Lavoris, and India S. Tyree as Cinderella. Photo: Greg Mooney.

::

IN THIS WORLD PREMIERE MUSICAL, KINDNESS COUNTS, FRIENDSHIP BEATS ROMANCE AND MAGIC LIES JUST OUTSIDE YOUR BACK DOOR.

 ::

Cinderella and Fella,” part of the Alliance Theatre’s Family Series, runs March 18-April 9. Details, tickets HERE.

::

THERE’S NO PLACE in the world like Kashoogie.

So you’ll learn as Cinderella and Fella unfolds on the Alliance Theatre stage. Kashoogie is a modern-day place. A Southern place. A much-like-Georgia place with its kudzu, magnolias, azaleas, wisteria, lightning bugs and mud.

Day 1 of "Cinderella and Fella" rehearsals with (from left) director Rosemary Newcott, playwright Janece Shaffer and composer S. Renee Clark. Photo: A'riel Tinter
Day 1 of “Cinderella and Fella” rehearsals with (from left) director Rosemary Newcott, playwright Janece Shaffer and composer S. Renee Clark. Photos by A’riel Tinter.

Kashoogie, where this world premiere musical is set, was conjured by this tale’s creators — playwright Janece Shaffer, composer S. Renee Clark and director Rosemary Newcott, who began brainstorming about it over coffee some 15 months ago.

Shaffer (Geller Girls, Broke) is having quite a year. Troubadour, her first world premiere musical at the Alliance, ran in January and February.

Newcott’s been having quite a year for many years. In her 20-plus Alliance seasons she’s directed a clutch of Christmas Carols and pretty much everything the company does for families, tweens and the very young.

A few of costume designer Sydney Roberts' sketches.
A few of costume designer Sydney Roberts’ sketches.

Clark — the “S” stands for Sandra — is the new kid on the block, so to speak. This is her first Alliance project, but she’s a friendly and familiar face in Atlanta theater circles and well beyond as a performer, music director, arranger and composer. She’s a two-time Suzi Bass Award winner (for Avenue Q at Horizon Theatre in 2011 and Big River at Theatrical Outfit in 2009) and in her eighth season as assistant choral director at East Point’s Tri-Cities High School.

Clark’s fans are many and far-flung, a group that includes pretty much anyone who has ever worked with her:

  • “Working with Renee is like going home after school with your best friend and making something together, and then having so much fun and being so excited and creative you can’t stop, says Theatrical Outfit Artistic Director Tom Key.
  • “Renee is one of the most gifted musicians that I have ever known,” says Atlanta-based director and actor Heidi Cline McKerley, a frequent collaborator. “There are three things that influence how she swings a musical theater score: She is the daughter of a preacher, so she has an enormous background in inspirational/church music; she is gifted in the jazz genre; and she is classically trained. Renee always takes what is on the page and makes it better.”
  • “She is a consummate pro that makes her music soar,” says Lisa Adler, co-artistic director at Horizon Theatre, where Clark has worked off and on since 2000. Clark usually plays keyboard and leads the band there as well as music-directing. This is “a joy,” says Adler, “because she keeps the level of musical performance very high. There is no slacking off when Renee is leading the charge!”
India S. Tyree (left) is Cinderella, with Terry Burrell as her Stepmom.
India S. Tyree (left) is Cinderella, with Terry Burrell as her Stepmom.

This version of the Cinderella fable has been in the works for two summers, two falls, one spring and three winters. Clark, Newcott and Shaffer would meet at San Francisco Roasting Co. on North Highland Avenue and talk. About life. About girls. About the various versions of Cinderella around the world, how they felt about Disney’s Cinderella and how they felt about being girls.

“The first four or five months we would just talk to each other,” Clark says, “and share our really personal stories of growing up. As we talked, the characters started developing.”

Then came the first of several workshops, with performers joining the discussion. The actresses came in and talked about what it was like to be a little girl. Then the actors came in and talked about what it was like to be a little boy.

“Janece and I would smile at each other across the room,” Clark says.

“From the start, what was interesting to me was to write a Cinderella where the women weren’t all mean,” Shaffer says. “I wanted a Cinderella where the magic is accessible. Moonflowers, moss, ladybugs and imagination are all right in your backyard.”

Molly Coyne and Brian Walker play Cinderella's step-siblings Vamnesia and Lavoris.
Molly Coyne and Brian Walker play Cinderella’s step-siblings Vamnesia and Lavoris.

This is also a Cinderella that champions friendship, not romance.

The reason the process has been so joyful stems from Rosemary, Shaffer says, “because she is the most generous collaborator and is still delighted by the process and the discoveries and trusts everyone to bring in their best.”

“Renee is fantastic at what she does,” Shaffer says. “She understands where we need music to lift the story and tell it in a different way. She’s incredibly inventive. Her instincts are great.”

“Renee is so inventive and so much fun,” says Newcott. “She really pays attention to both the character’s journey and the particular gifts of each performer. I am also extremely impressed by her ability to vocal coach. She has a great ear and great patience. Her composition is also eclectic in ways that perfectly fit the tone of the play.”

Clark, known as “an expert practitioner of tough love” (McKerley), scored Cinderella and Fella for two violins, guitar, piano and percussion. She’ll be on the piano during performances but that’s not all. She also plays Cinderella’s mother.

“It’s just a couple of lines,” she says. “But you know I love to have my acting moments.”

With this Alliance premiere, Cinderella and Fella joins the thousands of stories — dating to A.D. 860 in China — about an unfortunate young woman whose kindnesses lead to remarkable fortune.

“I am so giddy, excited about the possibilities of what this could become,” Clark says.

“We spend so much time in front of screens with our heads down,” Shaffer says. “At the end of this I want people to go into their backyard or to the park and see all the wonders waiting there for them.

Another takeaway, she says: “Kindness really matters.”

About Kathy Janich

Kathy Janich, Encore Atlanta’s editor, is a longtime arts journalist who has been seeing, working in or writing about the performing arts for most of her life. She's a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Americans for the Arts and the National Arts Marketing Project.

View all posts by Kathy Janich