Theater Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on November 17, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional,Tours

SMALLER PRODUCTION, BIGGER HEART

Fans of the stage musical Beauty and the Beast will not be disappointed by the newly re-imagined (read: scaled down) version currently on tour. Original Broadway director Rob Roth has assembled the same team, including Tony-winning costume designer Ann Hould-Ward; what we get, instead of a two-ton castle set, is a giant toy-box theater (with representational set pieces) that resembles big-budget Children’s Theater more than a Broadway spectacular.

Although the production values have been cut back (including a reduction in the orchestra), the script remains intact, offering the same brilliant storytelling seen on stage by over 35 million people. Belle (Liz Shivener) is the head-strong, adventure-seeking, book-loving misfit in a provincial European town. When her father, Maurice (Christopher Spencer) is imprisoned in an enchanted castle by a prince who has been transformed into a Beast (Justin Glaser), she offers her own captivity in place of her father, unaware that a spell has been placed on the castle by an enchantress – a spell which can only be broken if the beast offers his love and has it returned.

In the animated movie version, the inhabitants of the Beast’s castle were transformed into objects; here, they are designed as humans transforming into objects, which makes much more sense in a staged production. Included in the bric-a-brac are the candelabra Lumiere (Merritt David Janes), the mantle-clock Cogsworth (Keith Kirkwood), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Sabina Petra), and an opera singer-turned-vanity Madame de la Grande Bouche (Jen Bechter); all of the objects conspire to help the Beast win over Belle – if he does not, they will lose their humanity forever.

Since the show is less of a spectacle on tour, director Roth was wise to cast actors with appealing emotional honesty: Shivener deftly balances the willfulness of Belle with a striking vulnerability, and Glaser incorporates a sadness lurking within the Beast’s temper – a duality which evokes a strong empathy.

All of the performances are spot on, but Nathaniel Hackmann, as Gaston – the buffed, egocentric, brutish suitor to Belle – positively steals the show.  Michael Fatica, as his sidekick Lefou, utilizes gymnastic pratfalls with aplomb.

It is a testament to great storytelling that this pared-down bus-and-truck version remains emotionally resonant – storytelling that is courtesy of the book by Linda Woolverton, and ideas by the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman. Alan Menken’s music remains thrilling, but the new numbers incorporated into the original Broadway outing (with lyrics by Tim Rice) are immediately forgettable and enhance nothing to the proceedings (even though some new numbers such as “Home” offer character development, they feel embarrassingly trite).

The iconic number “Be Our Guest” still whips the audience into a frenzy of pleasure, and the title ballad retains the very timelessness that the song is about.

Even with the trappings that this show contains, such as cheap theatrical effects, broad mugging from the chorus, and overtly sentimental moments, this Beauty and the Beast reminds us to keep the art of storytelling alive; it manages to teach us powerful morals, all the while tugging at our heartstrings. If you are going for the same production values you may have seen in the past, you could be disappointed. Go for the story, stay for the story.

photos by Joan Marcus

Beauty and the Beast
presented by NETwork
closes at Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall on November 21, 2010
tour continues through June 26, 2011
for info, visit Music Theatre International

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