Thursday, September 28, 2000

Beauty and the Beast

It’s a tale as old as time: She’s the daughter of the crazy old town inventor, ridiculed by the townsfolk for her bookishness and her dreams of finding her prince charming. He’s a prince with a curse on his head, hiding his hideous form away in a creepy old castle, feared by the townsfolk because he’s “different.” The two outcasts find each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

The touring company of the Tony award-winning “Beauty and the Beast,” directed by Robert Jess Roth, opened Wednesday night at the Sacramento Community Center. This big, bold, opulent production had the audience, adults and children, totally captivated. Roth has managed to tell the simple love story with just enough glitz to keep it moving crisply and always entertaining, but never detracting from the message of seeing truth beneath physical appearance, or discovering the redemptive power of love.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a technician’s dream, from the lavish sets by Stanley A. Meyer which flew in from above, rolled in from the wings, swiveled on turntables or just hung there looking every bit like the real thing, to the lighting design by Natasha Katz, which included a marvelous moon-and-stars backdrop. And then there were the special effects--candles which ignited at a moment’s notice, sparkles, flashes, strobe lights, a headless kid who didn’t develop legs until the finale, and a transformation from Beast to Prince that would have done David Copperfield proud.

Danielle Bossardet is delicious as Belle, the spunky heroine, who, to save her father’s life, agrees to live in the castle of the Beast forever. Greg Norman as the Beast is fierce and then endearingly tender as his love for Belle grows.

Edward Staudenmayer, as the town hunk, Gaston, the muscle-bound fool who is determined to marry Belle, swaggers onto the stage like a combination of Jethro Clampet and Little Abner. He’s the villain you love to hate, and as male chauvenists go, none can hold a candle to this Gaston.

His hapless foil, Maurice (Ron Lee Savin) was a delight, with a body made of rubber as he is routinely whacked about the stage by Gaston, enhanced by the great sound effects design by Jonathan Deans. Each amplified “whack” is a reminder that this is really a cartoon, effectively brought to life on the stage.

The supporting players are a marvelous collection of cartoonesque characters. Cogsworth the fussbudget clock (Ron Bagden) and Lumiere, the Candlestick holder (Jay Russell) nearly steal the show with their antics and groaners like “You’ve cut me to the wick...” They are balanced nicely by Janet McEwen, a Debbie Reynolds-like Mrs. Potts, the teapot.

There are some gems in the smaller rolls, particularly Louisa Kendrick as Babette, the feather duster, and Monica M. Wemitt as Madame de la Grande Bouche. Ivy Fox, Amber Stone and Tia Marie Zorn as the three silly girls swooning for Gaston are likewise delightful.

The score by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, from a book by Linda Woolverton, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Disney animated feature that was the basis for this show. There are six new songs added for the stage, with lyrics by Tim Rice, plus another song (“Human Again”) with lyrics by Ashman, which was cut from the movie.

Choreography by Matt West is a delight. It’s not easy to design for dancing pieces of furniture, but West does well and the familiar “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopper. Lesser known musically, “Gaston,” a drinking song with intricate moves involving beer steins, is absolutely fabulous.

Costumer Ann Hould-Ward won a Tony for her designs for “Beauty and the Beast” and it was richly deserved. Of particular interest are the increasingly intricate costumes for the servants-turned-household objects, as they come closer to permanently becoming objects.

This is a show which will amuse and delight children and adults alike, and at its end you will believe that miracles do happen, people can live happily ever after, and that inner beauty can tame the beast.

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