Beauty and the Beast – (theatre)

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It is always a bit frightening to review a show that has friends involved. However, I was particularly interested in seeing this show because I felt that it would be a tremendous amount of work to pull off, even half-way good. Not saying that it is impossible to do well on a community theatre stage, but I knew the director, Kyla Willingham, would have her hands full.

Serving as the “Holiday” show for the season (for some reason), we were immediately met with that Christmas icon…Mother Goose? I won’t lie. I was confused by the lovely Carmen Ball’s appearance since the character has become a staple for Children’s Theatre productions. I get it. There was an expectation of a significant amount of children in the seats, but I still found her out of place. The only Goose / Christmas relation I think of is one that is cooked, which isn’t a pleasing thought. However, Ball’s kid-friendly personality as “theatre guide” quickly moved into the role of narrator as the show began.

A pleasing color palette on the set and a brief appearance of the beast through the opening narration was a promising step in a good direction. In fact, the casting was probably the show’s greatest strength.

Tim Johnson was the first actor introduced, playing The Beast. Thinking back to the original Planet of the Apes and the great Roddy McDowell, I imagined the difficulty in emoting through makeup and latex. Johnson managed to convey his intent in each scene, acting through all of the facial applications. He was effectively ferocious and disgruntled as he was kitten-like in his vulnerability. I might have pushed for him to be more frightening in those aggressive moments, but meh…He made it work. Vocally, Johnson is not a belter, but his sheer tonal quality was beautiful as he sang one of the most reflective numbers in the show. It was solid and appropriate, invoking a nice bit of sympathy.

The book smart heroine, Belle, was played by Lindsey Newall. Newall has an immediately likeable face, but not so wide-eyed as most Disney heroines. She makes a perfect brainy Disney dame. However, her volume was so low during most of the show that she wasn’t much more than a moving illustration. If any actor should have been fitted with a body mic, it was the lead. Still, it was an appropriate casting decision as Newall would be relate-able to all the little princesses in the audience.

One of the most notable performances came from Michael Wright as Lumiere, the candlestick. He was a sharp actor, without a doubt. His accent never wavered. His character was bright and energetic, without being obnoxious. In a show like this there is always that highlight character of humor and personality. Wright delivered every comic beat, romantic gesture, and gentlemanly flare that could be asked for. Almost reaching a point of monotony with a few of his gestures and exits, it was all forgivable due to his precision.

Working particularly well with Wright, was Chelsea Hunter as the feather duster. It is occurring to me after seeing Hairspray and now, Beauty and the Beast, that Hunter has a knack for character roles. She and Wright were fun and seamless in their interaction. Hunter never over-worked her role, but still managed to be a great match for Wright’s energy.

Willingham cast the rest of the roles quite well. Jonathan Suttmiller as the villain, Gaston, had the vocal chops to fill the demands of his character’s songs. I had a hard time envisioning this casting choice, but once I saw Suttmiller’s version of Gaston, I bought it. He was hammy, but that’s who Gaston is. Jessica Pierce went almost too far as the Opera singer-turned-wooden wardrobe, but managed to control it enough to keep the character from being annoying. Her vocals were particularly special, pulling off some impressive technical moves twice in the show. Brice Donaldson also found laughs as the clock. Though I didn’t feel the “buddy connection” between he and Wright together, Brice’s character as an individual was quite entertaining.

I also want to note that the three girls playing Gaston’s fan club (Natalie Rapp, Lenita Krejci, and Courtney Streznik) were delightfully cartoon-ish, bringing a burst of life to what could have been dud characters. The actresses playing wolves and napkins were great also, in particular Hennessy Chism and Kamika Ralstin. Their faces lit up with enthusiasm when they were on stage, filling in where extras are sometimes merely filling up space.

The choreography should also be mentioned. Suttmiller and Newell played double duty providing movement to the dance numbers. In particular, the “mug dance” was fun for the audience. There were some moments that the dancers held back, perhaps for fear of hurting each other, but I feel that would have been solved with a bit more rehearsal time.

The blocking was rather hit and miss. The “misses” were mostly apparent when a character was lying down but facing upstage. Not only did we get to stare at the backs of their heads, but we couldn’t hear them. In the final scene where the Beast transforms, he is so far out of the way and facing away from the audience that the moment is somewhat dulled. We lose the beginning of what should be a “teary” moment with Belle and the “dying” beast.

I was also having a hard time with the castle set being so prominent through the entire show, especially since small parts seemed to be unfinished or hastily put together. I wasn’t sure of our location at times. The only time I felt even close to being distracted from the castle set was the first tavern scene. I was also disappointed that the stairs weren’t used during the last moment when all of the actors were on stage to sing the finale, so that so many of them were hidden instead of getting “their moment”.

My only other issue was the lack of fanfare during the Beasts transformation. The lights dimmed (except for the red light on the rose), the “beast” got up and walked off so that the Prince could come out and take his place on the floor. No smoke, no shimmering lights, no glitter…It felt anti-climactic. It was more like the Beast got fired from his job, rather than him going through a magical process.

Still, Beauty and the Beast, brought in several laughs and ovations. I never had any “wow” moments, but I felt comfortable with the entertainment.  I wouldn’t say this beast of a show is “beautiful” but it had charming effort that showcased each cast member’s talent.  If you haven’t ordered your tickets, you’d better hurry.

http://www.gaslighttheatre.org  or 580-234-2307

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