Not Just a Cinderella Story: The Magic of "Ella Enchanted”

Kat Zukaitis
 | Oct 20, 2017

Ella Enchanted

Gail Carson Levine never liked Cinderella. The story of the wealthy young girl forced into servitude by her stepmother—and then eventually rewarded for her meekness by the hand of a prince—just never made sense to the award-winning author. What does this story celebrate? Why didn’t Cinderella ever fight back? Run away? Complain? Did she really have no other options?

That’s when the fairy tale finally came into focus. Cinderella isn’t just a tale about beauty, virtue and wish fulfilment. It’s about not having choices—and about the ability to dream within the constraints of your circumstances, whatever they are. Levine took this idea and ran with it, spinning the tale of Cinderella into a story about a girl whose fairy godmother cursed her with obedience. The result was Ella Enchanted, an instant classic that was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1998.

Gail Carson Levine

​Author Gail Carson Levine.

Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma

​Playwright Karen Zacarías and composer/musical director Deborah Wicks La Puma.

In Ella Enchanted, adapted for the stage by Karen Zacarías and Deborah Wicks La Puma, Ella’s godmother is a misguided fairy named Lucinda. When baby Ella won’t stop crying, Lucinda bestows a magical “gift” of obedience, dooming her to a life in which she is unable to disobey any direct order, no matter how thoughtless or cruel. But Ella grows into a clever, mischievous young woman. With the help of her mother, she learns to circumnavigate the curse with a mix of inventiveness and stubborn independence.

Then, when Ella is 15, her mother dies. Suddenly, there is a new woman in the house: Dame Olga, accompanied by her two daughters, the malicious Hattie and the vapid Olive. The only bright spot in Ella’s life is Prince Charmont (Char for short), who shares her love of learning new languages and sliding down banisters. Even being banished to finishing school doesn’t dampen her growing friendship with Char—although her life does become a lot more complicated once Hattie learns about Ella’s curse. Finally, Ella runs away in an effort to escape Hattie’s increasingly malicious orders… and runs straight into the greedy arms of a group of ogres.

And that’s just the beginning of Ella’s adventures! She will have to rely on her wits to escape the ​ogres and find her fairy godmother before her curse lands her in even more trouble. She’ll also have to find an answer for Char, who is falling in love with her—and she’s forbidden to tell him about her curse of obedience, which could endanger the entire kingdom! Ella’s quest will take her through the forests of Frell, into the company of ​giants, ogres, fairies and other magical creatures; back home, where her stepmother forces her into servitude; and finally to the royal ball at which Prince Char must choose a bride. Through danger, hardship and heartbreak, Ella must find a way to stay true to herself and stand up for what she believes in.

For Zacarías and La Puma, who together adapted Levine’s novel for the stage, it’s an important story to tell. “I grew up in Mexico,” says Zacarías, “where the Cinderella myth is alive and well in both good ways and bad: that every young girl is a potential princess, and that salvation is just a prince away. Disney has made millions banking on this fantasy.” For her, Ella Enchanted turns the story of Cinderella on its head, empowering the clever, determined heroine to take action and make decisions, even as it takes the constraints on her life seriously. “Ella, like most girls in the world, is cursed with obedience,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have choices. Although she lives in an oppressive environment, she never gives up or gives in. She resists, and insists on finding a way to have her will be heard.”

Ella Enchanted Cast

THE CAST: l. to r. Caitlyn Calfas, Erika Schindele, Joel Gelman, Arielle Fishman, Ella Saldana North, Ann Noble and Daniel Bellusci.

Zacarías and La Puma were also energized by the humor and creativity with which the story is told. Both of them grew up in households that spoke multiple languages (French, Danish, Spanish, Portugese) and were immediately drawn to Ella’s love of language. La Puma’s lively score helps bring the magic of the play to life, from a hilarious ogre tango to a mischief-filled finishing school waltz to dynamic ballads that give voice to Ella’s internal struggle to resist orders. Joining them for this adventure is director Casey Stangl, an SCR favorite whose past projects include The Siegel and Venus in Fur on the Segerstrom Stage as well as The Light Princess and Flora & Ulysses in the TYA series. Stangl directs Ella Enchanted with her characteristic crispness and insight.

SCR has assembled an all-star team of artists (both onstage and off) to tell Ella’s story. For starters, an actual Ella stars in this show: Ella Saldana North, last seen on the Segerstrom Stage in Karen Zacarías’ Destiny of Desire, plays Ella of Frell! The cast also features beloved SCR veterans Eri​ka Schindele, Ann Noble, Joel Gelman and Arielle Fishman, as well as talented newcomers Caitlyn Calfas and Daniel Bellusci. The design team includes Angela Balogh Calin (costumes); Karyn D. Lawrence (lighting); Keith Mitchell (scenic); Jeff Polunas (sound), with Darlene Miyakawa stage managing. And if you catch sight of lumbering giants or swooping birds on stage, you have Sean T. Cawelti and his enormous, intricate puppet designs to thank.

But it’s the captivating story that remains the core of this piece. “Ella Enchanted is a fun and frolicking musical,” says Zacarías, “but it also carries a powerful message about each child’s responsibility to discover his or her own unique voice and use it to make the world a better and more inclusive place. It’s a play that encourages children to resist bullies, to resist oppression and to find the true magic of common language and common ground.” Whether you’ve got a curse-wielding fairy godmother or not, this is a show that’s sure to delight with its very own brand of magic.