Theatrical Review – Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
By Ken Kiunke
Beauty and the Beast â€””A tale as old as time”â€”is back. The story of the vain, wealthy man cursed because he cannot see people for the beauty within, is being brought to life once again in a new version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beastâ€”the stage musical, based on the Disney animated film from 1991. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1994, is an expanded re-telling of the story from the film, using all of the songs from the original and adding seven more. Composer Alan Menken worked with lyricist Howard Ashman in the original, and after he died, Tim Rice and Menken wrote the new material. Menken and Rice later teamed up again to write new songs for Disney’s latest version of the tale, a live-action film released earlier this year, starring Emma Watson. That was followed, for Sacramento audiences, with a grand production this summer at the Music Circus. This once little-regarded story by French writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont has become a big part of the culture, and a family favorite. El Dorado Musical Theatre (EDMT) is presenting the show for their third time, and each production gets better and better. (Their last production was in 2011.)
â€‹The show, which opened October 27 at Folsom’s Harris Center for the Arts, features two entire casts; the “Rose” cast, which I saw on opening night, and the “Mirror” cast. While I am writing about the stars of the Rose cast, EDMT typically has two companies of equal talent in their big shows. Nittany Biggs stars as Belle, the “Beauty” of the title; a young woman living in her “provincial town” who reads voraciously, and dreams of adventures beyond the French village. (Hannah Davis stars in the Mirror cast.) An early version of the more modern “Disney Princess,” Belle is smart, independent, and caring, but still dreams of meeting her prince charming, as she sings in the opening song “Belle.” At 15, Biggs is an up-and-coming young star for EDMT. In her fourteenth show, she takes command of the stage, with a lovely voice and strong presence to carry the roleâ€”crucial as she is in nearly every scene.
â€‹Her leading “man”â€”the Beast, (sometimes known as Prince Adam) is played by Zach Wilson (in both casts.) At 17, Wilson is in his amazing forty-fourth EDMT production, and has become the “face” of EDMTâ€”a face that is unrecognizable behind the great makeup that transforms him into the iconic fanged Beast of the story. But his powerful voice shows especially well in the song “If I Can’t Love Her” at the end of the first act, as he struggles with his desire to win Belle’s heart and break the curse, while knowing he is hideous and frightening in appearance, (and fairly cranky as well.) Wilson handles the challenging role of the Beast expertly. Behind makeup, fangs, and wild hair for most of the show, he is initially intimidating and harsh, and then becomes frustrated, confused, and easily manipulated by Belle and his servants, who desperately want him to win the love of Belle so they can be freed of the curse that transformed them into household objects.
â€‹And then there’s Gaston, the narcissistic bully who has set his sights on Belle as a prize he can winâ€”she’s the only girl in town not crazy for him. Stephen Knoble (also in both casts) grabs the role of the bombastic buffoon with great gusto, especially in one of the highlights of the show, “Gaston.” In that song, sung with his lackey LeFou, he delivers lines like “I’m especially good at expectorating” and “I use antlers in all of my decorating” with comic seriousness while strutting about, impressing the girls and beating up on LeFou. 13-year-old Cameron Renstrom plays LeFou. At about half the size of Gaston, he brings a lot of personality to the role as he endures constant abuse from his so-called friend, while maintaining his upbeat attitude. The dance around the song, a sort of “beer mug ballet” with Gaston, LeFou, and the townspeople, is a lot of fun, and just one of the great numbers choreographed by Anjie Rose Wilson, a former star and now principle choreographer for EDMT.
â€‹Watching Gaston try to woo Belle is great fun and presented humorously, as when Knoble and Biggs perform the song “Me”â€”one of the new numbers created for the musical, as Gaston proposes to Belle, fully expecting her to rush to his side. But as she rebuffs his, he begins using physical intimidation against her, blocking, grabbing, and even carrying her over his shoulder. While Belle never seems too threatened by him, looking bemused as he locks arms and pulls her across the stage, the scene does hit close to home, especially with today’s news of women finally coming out against powerful men who have harassed them. It gets even more resonant when the frustrated Gaston plots revenge against Belle for refusing him, enlisting help, and even a mob, to get his way. But Belle fights back, and he, of course, is ultimately undone.
â€‹Helping in that cause, and bringing life to the Beast’s castle, are the enchanted objects, Prince Adam’s one-time servants. Cogsworth the clock, played by Ty Rhoades, and Lumiere the candelabra, played by Liam Roberts, are the comic duo running the household, and bring a lot of fun to their roles. Rhoades has great stage presence as the leader of the staff, trying to please the master, while constantly overrun by rest of them. Especially when Lumiere and Mrs. Potts lead the staff, along with several imaginative plates, napkins, silverware, and kitchen tools, in the rousing “Be Our Guest,” another big highlight of the show. That famous song is brought to life in a full-company stage number, which features the “Napkins” in a Rockettes-style kick line, and an amazing acrobatic Carpet played by young gymnast, Amaya Pangilinan.
â€‹Mrs. Potts, played by Jocelyn Haney, plays her role with great tenderness and a lovely serene look, but you can tell her heart is breaking that her child Chip, played by Leighton L’Engle, may never grow up to be a real child again. She has a beautiful, clear voice that delivers on the iconic title song, the sentimental “Beauty and the Beast.” Emily Fritz as Babette, the sultry feather duster, and Lindsey Hunter as Madame de la Grande Bouche, the operatic wardrobe, are great in their roles as well, as when the staff all sing of their desire to be “Human Again” if the Beast can break the spell. Other notable performances are Belle’s father Maurice, played by Luke Villanueva (in both casts) and Angelo Aceves as Monsieur D’Arque, whom Gaston enlists to lock up Maurice as a madman in his scheme to get back at Belle. While Villanueva shows great tenderness in his role as the eccentric inventor and loving father, Aceves is quite creepy as the proprietor of Maison des Lunes, the local insane asylum.
â€‹The costumes in this production, perhaps more than any others before, are quite amazing. Costume designer Karen McConnell, with help of at least 21 members of her team, have outfitted 70 performers in each cast, each of them with multiple costume changes. Most stunning, of course, are the wonderful outfits worn by the enchanted objectsâ€”Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot, Madame the wardrobe, Babette the feather duster, along with all the rest. Then add in Belle’s peasant dress, her ballroom gowns, and the Beast’s outfits, all done with great care and detail, you have quite an accomplishment. The sets, designed by Crystal Crowe, are also great, augmented by projected scenes in background. And of course, holding it all together is veteran director Debbie Wilson, who pulls off these grand productions with dozens of young performers in two casts, time and time again. And the great singing, by everyone from the stars to the company, is a tribute to vocal director Jennifer Wittmayer.
â€‹The opening night audience loved the show, giving the performers a standing ovation. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, produced by Alicia Soto, runs through Sunday, November 5. Even at two hours long, with a 20 minute intermission, it will keep kids of all ages, and grown-ups as well, engaged and entertained. For tickets and more info, visit www.edmt.info or www.harriscenter.net The company will also present a “High Voltage” Holiday Celebration on December 19 of this year. EDMT’s next big show will be ’42nd Street’, one of their audition-only “Encore” productions, beginning February 16, 2018.