Saturday, December 02, 2006

Beauty and the Beast (Beck Center)

Noah and Alex agree with grandpa, ‘Beauty And The Beast’ is a beaut at Beck!

‘DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST,’ which is now on stage at Beck Center, tells a "tale as old as time." It was originally conceived in 1740 as a dark and scary fable. In 1992 Disney released a lighter version which became the first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. In 1994 Disney transformed the script into an award winning Broadway musical.

Last year Beck offered the show as an option to the usual holiday fare. It was a good idea. I called the production “a delightful experience,” and advised “see it!”

Fred Sternfeld has proven that he is a master at directing mass crowd musicals and scripts of high quality (e.g., ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ and ‘RAGTIME’). He has a knack for involving the entire cast, working with the leads to fine-tune the show, and getting audiences emotionally involved.

‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’ concerns a prince who, because he has no love in his heart, is transformed into a beast by an enchantress. To break the spell, the Beast must learn to love another and earn her love in return. If not, he will be doomed to remain a beast for all time.

Into the Beast’s life comes Belle, a beautiful young woman who lives with her eccentric father in a small town near the Beast’s castle. Belle longs for a life of adventure like those she reads of in books. Her father gets lost in the woods and wanders into the Beast’s castle, where he is imprisoned. Upon finding her father in the Beast's clutches, Belle offers herself as a captive in return for her father’s release. can guess the rest. Yes, the Beast learns kindness and love, it is reciprocated by Belle, and we all go out of the theatre singing the likes of “If I Can’t Love Her,” “Be Our Guest,” and the title song, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Natalie Green again is glorious as Belle. She is beautiful, lights up the stage with her smile, sings like an angel and dances with ease. Her version of “A Change in Me” is enchanting.

Dan Folino, one of my very favorite local actors, has a full and powerful voice and gives a vulnerable texture to the role of the Beast that adds much to the characterization. His “If I Can’t Love her” is captivating. He and Green make the perfect fairy tale prince and princess. Two tween girls seated behind me, who couldn’t control themselves (giggle, giggle, giggle) during the show, squealed with delight at the end when the beast became a “real” person and then kissed Belle. They simultaneously shrieked, “He is so cute, I bet they really are in love” (giggle, giggle, giggle).

I still don’t buy Josh Noble as Gaston. In spite of his good singing voice and pearly white teeth, he feigns bravado, it doesn’t come naturally. He also doesn’t have the muscle-tone that is referred to in the score. Obviously, my view is in the minority, as he got a screaming ovation during the opening night curtain call.

Zac Hudak (Lefou) makes for the perfect punching bag for Gaston. He needs to be careful, however, as he is telegraphing the “shticks” and has become so automatic that he is losing laughs. And, getting laughs is the reason for his being in the show.

Doug Collier as Cogsworth (the clock), and Larry Nehring, who gives a Danny Kaye quality to Lumiere, are both delightful. Tracee Patterson, who played Madame de la Grande Bouche (the dresser) last year, is charming as Mrs. Potts.

Martin Cespedes is a master of choreography. It is amazing what he can do with a group of performers who, in general, are not proficient dancers. “Be Our Guest” and “Gaston” were absolute show stoppers!

Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra is excellent, remembering the rule that the orchestra in a musical plays backup to the singers and are not giving a concert.

Ben Needham’s scenic design is excellent. It is amazing how he used every inch of space on the small stage area to allow for ease of movement.

Since the show is aimed at kids of all ages, I took my trusty “kid’s viewpoint experts”-- my grandsons--Alex and Noah Berko to see the show. Their capsule judgements: “The music was great, the singing and dancing were great. I really liked it, except for the kissing!” (What can you expect, he’s anb 11-year old boy!) And, “I really liked the funny guy (Zac Hudak), and it was really creative, especially the costumes and the sets, but the kissing...blech!” (I guess 9 year-old males aren’t into the smoochy stuff either.) The boys were alert and paid attention throughout, and were a great audience, hysterically falling for all of Sternfeld’s gimmicks. They were especially impressed by the ending. “How did they get the beast out of the makeup and make him real so fast?” Hmm...only Sternfeld knows.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” is a delightful production. It is appropriate for kids over 8. Younger ones may be scared by the beast and the wolves. Oh, please tell the tween-aged girls that relating the whole story out loud throughout the production is not good theatre etiquette. And, as the boys said, “All the giggling, yuck!”

For tickets to ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’ which runs through December 31 at the Beck Center for the Arts, call 216-521-2540.