Raleigh Little Theatre’s 22nd edition of the musical Cinderella, now playing in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, is a new and improved version of this fractured fairy tale, with book and lyrics by Jim Eiler and music by Eiler and Jeanne Bargy. Over the past two decades, longtime RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons has added traditional carols and other musical numbers to this popular children’s musical, which was originally written for The Prince Street Players. This year, new musical director Megan Crosson has put a nice new polish on all of these musical gems in the expanded score of the RLT version of Cinderella.

The show’s handsome set (designed by Rick Young and Bill Rogers) and its fantastical costumes (designed by Vicki Olson and John Franklin) look like something out of a children’s storybook. They combine with the show’s artful lighting by Rick Young to create a magical once-upon-a-time atmosphere for a musical play in which a fabulous Fairy Godmother (Julia Ann Rogers) can transform a pumpkin, assorted mice, and the bedraggled kitchen scullion Cinderella (Suzanna Dupree) into a handsome carriage, a team of horses, and an enchanted princess.

The lovely and talented Suzanna Dupree returns as Cinderella, playing opposite a brand-new Prince Charming I (Florian Willem Maria Kreuk) as handsome and as dashing as the hero of a romance novel. Julia Ann Rogers gives the plucky Fairy Godmother a fresh new personality; and Sandi Sullivan, who played Fairy Godmother last year, is wonderfully wicked as the cruel, insensitive Stepmother who makes her pitiful stepdaughter Cinderella a virtual household slave to her whims and the whims of her hideously ugly daughters Henrietta and Gertrude (Timothy Cherry and M. Dennis Poole in drag).

Cherry and Poole are uglier (in body and spirit) and funnier than ever. They ham it up shamelessly in dramatic new dresses specially created for this production by costume designer Vicki Olson.

Michael Lester gives a regal performance as the new King Darling III, the famously nearsighted monarch/masher who scandalizes the ladies of his court. Curtis Scott Brown and Jason Justice cut up outrageously as Fairy Godmother’s protean Helpers. Daniel Marhelko is cute as the Young Prince; and Sophie Crouse, Caroline D’Ercole, Michelle Lehman, Matthew Harvey, Patrick Harvey, and Trey Lower are darling as the Mice whom Fairy Godmother temporarily transforms into coach horses.

Under the energetic and imaginative direction of director/choreographer Haskell Fitz-Simons, Cinderella is dramatically improved version of Raleigh Little Theatre’s traditional Christmas musical, with a sparkling score, elaborate sets and costumes, and some striking new outfits for the Ugly Stepsisters. Moreover, the new cast members, such as Julia Ann Rogers, Michael Lester, and Florian Kreuk, combine with the Cinderella veterans, such as Sandi Sullivan, Dennis Poole, and Tim Cherry, to add some nice new twists to this annual event.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents Cinderella Tuesday, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, Dec. 15-16, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 17-18, at 1 and 5 p.m. in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15-$25. 919/821-3111 or via etix.com at the presenter’s site. Note: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and there will be assistive listening devices at all performances. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/cind.htm [inactive 4/06].