- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

“Goodness has nothing to do with it,” winks Mae West. Yet goodness has everything to do with “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” an African variation on the Cinderella story at Imagination Stage that makes virtue every bit as attractive as vice.

Both of Mufaro’s (Charles Wellington Young) daughters possess physical glory, but, as this hushed and lovely tale tells us, looks aren’t everything. The one daughter, Manyara (Thembi Duncan) is gorgeous, spoiled and idle, and would be right at home preening and slumming with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. She treats her kind sister Nyasha (Erika Rose) like a slave, saying that when she becomes queen, Nyasha would be pleased to be her servant.

Nyasha, equally beautiful, is happy with her lot in life. She is good to her father, happily raises vegetables and sunflowers, and is so curious and compassionate that she even befriends a snake that slithers into her garden. This character could make you gag on her goody-goodiness, but Miss Rose is sunny and strong rather than insufferable.

One day, the king (Jefferson A. Russell) decrees that he is ready to choose a wife and wants all the young women in the country to gather in the city. Manyara steals away in the night and uses rudeness, selfishness, and cutthroat haste to beat her rivals to the palace. On the other hand, Nyasha respects her father and her elders, and sees the journey to the city as an adventure rather than a competition.

You don’t have to be a wiz at folk tales to figure how this turns out. In this story at least, a good heart trumps a pretty face. The moral may be predictable, but that does not mean “Mufaro” is bereft of charm.

Director Jennifer Nelson has kept things unaffected and straightforward, emphasizing the differences between the sisters without knocking you over the head. Rather than making it an inane good versus evil story, Miss Duncan actually makes you feel twinges of sympathy for Manyara for being so single-minded and self-centered.

Miss Nelson also captures the African feel of the folk tale by having two dancers, Vanessa Allegra and Tryphena Wade, playing the villagers. Dancing to the percussive beat of the African music, their movements are swift and dynamic.

The jungle set by Milagros Ponce de Leon is a marvel of economy and simplicity, its dark green palette suggesting a place of both mystery and familiarity. If there is one drawback to Imagination Stage’s production, it is that the sound and music cues were often a beat or two off, briefly shattering the exotic magic of the piece. There were also some opening-night glitches with the props.

It may be that Imagination Stage is still getting used to its swanky new home and to the technological wonders at its disposal. Once its comfortable with the new space, perhaps captivating shows like “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” will be even more effective.

***

WHAT: “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” by Karen Abbott

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN: 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 29.

TICKETS: $7.50 to $12

PHONE: 301/280-1660

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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