Chicago Theater Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Dan Zeff on July 14, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The Chicago Shakespeare Theater is presenting the best musical production of the summer, but audiences will have to see it in the daytime. The production is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and while it’s billed as a family musical (a code phrase for children’s show), this show distributes its pleasures equally among young and adult, even those adults who paid massive ticket prices to take their kids to see the Disney show when it played the Loop.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Chicago Shakespeare’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

A glance at the playbill assures the audience they will be seeing a top drawer staging before the lights go down. The director is Rachel Rockwell, the hottest director of musicals in the area. Doug Peck is maybe the preeminent musical director in Chicagoland theater today. The cast list is loaded with stars of the adult musical theater in Chicagoland, like Mary Ernster, Bernie Yvon, Andrew Lupp, Maggie Portman, David Lively, and Roger Mueller. Add some lesser known but superbly talent performers and you have an ensemble that would decorate any musical stage in the region.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Chicago Shakespeare’s BEAUTY AND THE BEASTThe story, as every youngster with a DVD player must know by heart, tells about a young prince who was changed onto a hideous beast by a witch. He can only be restored to his princely appearance by the love of a good woman. And that woman is Belle, the oddball of her village because she enjoys reading, has an independent mind, and resists the advances of the village hunk, a bombastic lout named Gaston.

The production has been condensed to 75 minutes without an intermission, but nothing essential has been omitted. Indeed, the show is sleeker and more entertaining with the fat carved away, especially the tiresome pratfalls associated with Gaston’s hapless sidekick LeFou. And the violent ending, where Gaston and the beast duel to the death on the beast’s castle ramparts, has been reduced to Gaston being humiliated and scurrying off stage. It saves time and omits a brutal scene that always seemed too intense for young viewers.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Chicago Shakespeare’s BEAUTY AND THE BEASTThe trimmed-down show retains the best of the original score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Visually, the staging is a stunner, with sumptuous colorful costumes coordinated by Theresa Hamm, a colorful set by Scott Davis, lighting by Philip Rosenberg and sound by Garth Helm. Mike Tutaj has designed some terrific whimsical projections. A children’s play has rarely looked and sounded this good. Rockwell’s choreography is bouncy and romantic as the situation requires, with a frolicsome “Be Our Guest” especially pleasurable.

A radiant young actress named Emily Rohm plays Belle with a lustrous voice and lots of the pluck that makes her that rarity in a Disney heroine, a gal full of spirit. William Travis Taylor plays the beast with more complexity and feeling than I’ve ever seen in this character. Taylor’s beast really yearns for Belle under his gruff exterior and his hesitant declarations of love are sincere and moving, not cartoon emotions.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Chicago Shakespeare’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

The supporting cast all flourish in their oddball roles. Roger Mueller is a hoot as Belle’s eccentric but lovable father. The performers who play the servants sharing the beast’s enchantment seem to be having a ball and their exuberance is contagious—Bernie Yvon as Lumiere, Mary Ernster as Mrs. Potts, David Lively as Cogsworth, Joelle LaMarre as Madame de la Grande Bouche, and Emilie Lynn as Babette. Among the denizens of the village, Jake Klinkhammer is fine as the bullying smirky Gaston and Andrew Lupp looks like Gene Wilder as LeFou. Rebecca Pink, Maggie Portman, and Laura Savage are excellent as the singing and dancing Silly Girls.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Chicago Shakespeare’s BEAUTY AND THE BEASTThe test of any show aimed at children is the noise factor during the show. All the children who belonged in the theater were mesmerized. Unfortunately, some adults brought 3- and 4-year-olds and an occasional babe-in-arms. The cutoff should be five years old. The unlucky spectator also may be seated near an adult who feels the need to explain everything on the stage to her toddler while the performance is on. But that’s just a pitfall of children’s theater.

Candidly, the production didn’t have to be this good to entice its core audience of youngsters. The CST deserves congratulations for going the extra mile in casting and designing and staging this show, the best I’ve seen any summer on Navy Pier since the halcyon days of The Wizard of Oz.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Beauty and the Beast
Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
ends on August 26, 2012
for tickets, call 312 595 5600 or visit Chicago Shakes

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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