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Cinderella Della Circus: High wire act 

Showmanship has never been in short supply at the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Cinderella Della Circus is no exception. Jon Ludwig, who wrote and directed the playful riff on Cinderella, transfers the fairy tale to the big top, with adorable and abundantly creative results. Compared with his best shows in the Center's Family Series, however, Cinderella Della Circus is more of a sideshow attraction.

Instead of a predictable princess-to-be, Ludwig imagines Cinderella as a young, moonstruck tightrope walker with unkempt hair and oversized feet. When ringmaster P.T. Barnum rockets to the moon with Jules Verne at the end of a performance, the cruel Madame Bullie takes over the circus and condemns Cinderella and her performing animal pals to menial drudgery. How will she be able to make the performance for the prince's ball?

Ludwig, the puppeteers, and the rest of the creative team clearly love the old-fashioned props and conventions of circuses and carnivals. Rochelle Barker's candy-colored scenery evokes a circus tent and poster art while looking good enough to eat. The marionette designs include oddities such as a "zebracorn" (half zebra, half unicorn) and Stretcho, the stretching man (whose catchy, dramatic theme song is probably the show's most memorable tune). While the stunts prove less dazzling and intricate than the circus scenes in the Center's adult show The Ghastly Dreadfuls, the kids in the audience won't be disappointed.

Cinderella Della Circus' characterization can get a little fuzzy. Cinderella speaks in rhyme but doesn't really talk much (in her main tightrope sequence, we only see her feet and hands). She falls not for a fatuous prince but his oddball brother, a harlequin-type clown who doesn't speak at all. It's hard to identify with a romantic couple who have such restraints on their communication. (Of course, Disney's Cinderella is even more passive.) And though I appreciate the way it turns the glass-slipper plot upside down, the adaptation doesn't make complete sense of the Cinderella story on its own terms. In 2006, Theatre in the Square's Cinderella Confidential offered a silly but tighter variation on the timeless story.

Ludwig still hides little references to high and low pop culture in the show like the prizes in boxes of Cracker Jacks. An elephant character floats by on a soap bubble evoking Dumbo. The shadow puppet rocket trip footnotes Georges Méliès' landmark silent film A Trip to the Moon. A chorus of princes looks a little like Terence and Philip from "South Park." Ludwig even digs up obscure freak show acts like the Fiji Mermaid – part monkey, part fish – suggesting how much the play's creative team enjoys researching the subject. Given that some of Ludwig's most memorable kid's shows were the less plot-driven educational musicals such as The Body Detective, it's as though he'd rather hit the books than run away to join the circus.

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