Composer Sergei Prokofiev’s prologue in his 1944 Cinderella score lasts a mere two-and-a-half minutes, but in Christopher Wheeldon’s eponymous production, an entire story gets delivered in that time, one of love and loss, a mother’s death, a father and young daughter’s inconsolable grief, the magic of a tree that sprouts and grows from the girl’s tears. Wheeldon’s production, a 2012 co-commission by Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, opens SFB's 2020 repertory season, and on Tuesday night at the War Memorial Opera House, the magic flowed from start to finish.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's <i>Cinderella</i> © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

Credit is due not just to Wheeldon and his choreography (and Prokofiev’s stunning score) but to the team Wheeldon assembled for this production. Scenic and costume design are the work of the splendidly talented Julian Crouch. Natasha Katz provided lighting design, Daniel Brodie, projection design, and Basil Twist, Tree and Carriage Sequence design and direction. Craig Lucas based his libretto on elements from both the Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the fairy tale, adding a dollop of contemporary sensibility and humor.

Another backstory scene – for Prince Guillaume – reveals a boyhood friendship with Benjamin, the valet’s son, who keeps the prince down to earth. The boys’ antics ease us out of sorrowful intensity and into comedy, which comes on full force through Act 1, where a ball is being planned for the now-adult prince to help find him a bride. Delivering invitations in advance of the event, the prince (Joseph Walsh) and Benjamin (Esteban Hernandez), still indulging in antics, switch roles as they present themselves at the household of Cinderella’s family. On Tuesday night, stepmother Hortensia (Sarah Van Patten) and daughters Edwina and Clementine (Elizabeth Powell and Ellen Rose Hummel respectively) were hilarious, elegantly graceless as they preened and fawned over the wrong prince, while the real one crept in as a beggar, noticed only by Cinderella (Frances Chung), who offered him food and warmth. One of the standouts from this scene was watching the two stepdaughters practice their dancing in anticipation of the ball. It takes talent, discipline and nuance – and inventive choreography – to dance “ugly” while maintain a supreme confidence, and Powell and Hummel were both brilliant here, at their comic best.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's <i>Cinderella</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

A lovely connection transpires between Chung’s Cinderella and Walsh’s Guillaume when, alone in the room, they dance together. To Cinderella’s chagrin, she steps on his foot. It’s adorable. The two look great together, they move beautifully together; there’s a connection that makes you like them, care about them.

One of my favorite things in this production is the presence of the four Fates (Max Cauthorn, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Steven Morse, Alexander Reneff-Olson) who initially bear away Cinderella’s deceased mother, then remain to offer support and solace to Cinderella, tidily taking the place of a fairy godmother. Clad in dark blue costumes and gold face masks, often fading into shadows, they whirl and move in tandem. Their arrival is represented by the score’s “fairy godmother” music, the sweetest, most hope-filled melody imaginable. Another favorite part: toward the end of Act 1, Cinderella’s woodland friends have helped her prepare for the ball. Before our eyes, a carriage comes together to whisk her off to the ball, the wheels transported by four individuals, nearly invisible in dark costumes. Along with the support of the four Fates, you’d swear Cinderella was in a carriage flying through the air, her cape billowing behind her from the wind. The end result feels like magic.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's <i>Cinderella</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

This production, and the night’s performance, was full of numerous delightful contributions: a dozen chairs that slowly rose and arced over the stage in a graceful, eerie dance of their own; Esteban Hernandez as a playful, exuberant Benjamin; a wildly colorful Lonnie Weeks exploding onto the stage as the spirit of Summer/Generosity; and Jahna Frantziskonis’ adorable, playful, spirit of Spring/Lightness. The stunning ensemble waltz at the ball, filling the stage with movement and color, the women gorgeously attired in gowns of peacock blue, violet and turquoise. Cinderella’s arrival at the ball, which is gorgeously presented, with the four Fates gently peeling away the crowd so the prince could see Cinderella. Act 3 commences in a hilarious lineup, where a dozen females, regardless of species – gnomes, princesses, gnarled horse chestnuts, feathered beaky bird-women – sit eagerly to try on the golden (not glass) slipper.

Wheeldon’s Cinderella is the kind of production that so enthralls, you immediately want to make plans to see it again. Beautifully accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Martin West, it’s a magical start to San Francisco Ballet’s 2020 repertory season.

****1