- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

Actor Paolo Montalban doesn't quite look like the prince who marries Cinderella, at least not the one so many people grew up watching in various incarnations.

Nor did many of Mr. Montalban's fellow cast members of 1997's TV musical "Cinderella" resemble the actors who portrayed those roles in past productions.

The film's diverse cast, featuring Brandy and Whitney Houston, among others, broke entertainment ground.

The latest spin on Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" comes to the Kennedy Center Opera House from Tuesday through Jan. 13, with Mr. Montalban again in the role of the Prince.

"I thought they'd make a bigger deal out of it," says the Philippines-born Mr. Montalban during a recent phone interview, referring to audiences' reactions to the 1997 telefilm. "People took to it as if it were colorless. It's really nice to see the trend on TV and film."

The only casting call to make an impact now, and a thunderous one at that, is the legendary Eartha Kitt purring her way through her paces as the Fairy Godmother.

"A lot of people are intimidated by her. She has so much presence," Mr. Montalban says.

"You get past that it's like having another grandmother around. This one," he adds, "has the legs of a 21-year-old Rockette."

The princely role may be familiar to Mr. Montalban, but the current production affords him the chance to flesh out his character.

"When I first shot the movie, we only spent about 10 weeks to put that together," he says. "Cinderella" endures as a vehicle sturdy enough to survive any number of transmutations.

Giambattista Basile's "Cat Cinderella" in 1634 had Cinderella killing her wicked stepmother. The Brothers Grimm version has birds plucking out the eyes of the two stepsisters for their misdeeds.

The version visiting the Kennedy Center puts a modern spin on the fairy tale.

"It's not that stilted, royal kind of speak," Mr. Montalban says. "These people are regular people in extraordinary circumstances.

"Cinderella has to make the choice to help herself first," he adds of the newly empowered heroine, played by Jessica Rush.

Director Gabriel Barre fleshed out the duo's relationship in contemporary terms.

"When approaching the piece, the director said, 'Imagine Cinderella is a peasant that is meant to be among the royalty, and the prince is a royal who feels he should be among the peasants,'" Mr. Montalban says.

One physical change wrought by Mr. Barre and stage adapter Tom Briggs is the addition of a prologue during which Cinderella plants a tree to memorialize her late mother.

Mr. Montalban, no relation to actor Ricardo Montalban, wasn't nervous when he auditioned for the TV role in front of Miss Houston, the executive producer.

"I was running late," recalls Mr. Montalban, who says he was the last of about 700 to audition. "I was only worried about getting there."

The actor, who starred on television's "Mortal Kombat Conquest," has a growing list of theatrical credits. He appeared as Lun Tha in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of "The King and I," along with appearances in productions of "Man of La Mancha" and "Kiss Me, Kate."

A more curious blip on his resume has the twentysomething performer as one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" three years ago.

Mr. Montalban earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Rutgers University, a set of skills he says comes in handy in dealing with colorful entertainment personalities.

"This business has a lot to do with tolerance," he says. "It's worth it to have the tolerance and patience to see what [fellow actors] have to offer."

As for "Cinderella," he says its timeless appeal makes it worth revisiting, both for himself and the audience.

"It's part of a mythology, really. It all goes back to stories like 'Hamlet' and 'Star Wars.' It's the girl born into greatness that was taken away from her, and through her own goodness and a little help from friends she gets to the place she needs to be."

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