Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Well, it was bound to happen eventually! The Disneyfication of Broadway has migrated to regional dinner theater. La Comedia Dinner Theatre, located in southwest Ohio, is one of a number of theaters outside of New York now presenting the stage adaptation of the animated film Beauty and the Beast, which opened on Broadway in 1994. This is not a particularly bad thing. With families and groups looking for safe, wholesome shows to attend, this option is a welcome addition to the many staples of dinner theater. Just how many times can a theater produce The Sound of Music and Oklahoma? With Beauty and the Beast, La Comedia gets a well-known title with quality material. The theater's production boasts a very strong cast, along with sufficient design and direction, resulting in a worthwhile mounting.
The stage version of the full-length cartoon musical maintains the story of the young woman, Belle, who becomes a prisoner in the castle of the Beast. The creature is actually a prince who is under a spell. He must find someone to love, and to return that love, before the last petal falls from the enchanted rose, or he will remain a beast forever. With the help of the likewise spellbound servants of the castle, the Beast must make Belle see past his hideous exterior.
The book for Beauty and the Beast is by Linda Woolverton, who also wrote the screenplay for the animated feature. The story interweaves romance, fantasy, action, comedic silliness, and moral lessons into a fun and intriguing tale. For the stage, the characters are more fully realized and developed (the new songs help greatly in this area). The servants are gradually changing into household objects, rather than already being fully transformed, thus making their desperation to have the spell broken even more urgent.
The score for the original film was created by the talented duo of Alan Menken (music) and the late Howard Ashman (lyrics). All of their fine songs from the cartoon version, including now classic tunes such as "Be Our Guest" and the title number, are included here, as well as "Human Again," which was composed for the film but not used. In addition, Menken and lyricist Tim Rice have augmented the original score with a number of wonderful new songs. With Menken's gifted melodies and Rice's well-crafted words, "Home," "If I Can't Love Her," and the other new material effectively mix with the originals and add needed depth to the characters.
This show provides ample opportunities to showcase a number of performers. Sarah Shahinian turns in one of the strongest female performances at La Comedia in recent memory. As Belle, Ms. Shahinian displays the right balance of spunk and likeable warmth, as well as a beautiful singing voice. As the Beast, Shane Tanner impresses with a gorgeous and expressive voice, and he improves in the acting department as the show progresses. Thomas C. Rainey shows off an attractive and deep baritone voice as Gaston, and recent CCM grad Andrew Ford does well as the goofy Lefou. Providing fine performances in supporting roles are David Hicks (Lumiere), Victoria Bundonis (Mrs. Potts), B. J. Scahill (Cogsworth), Tamara Lynn (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Allan Karol (Maurice), and Lindsey Clayton (Babette). The twenty-six performers do well in carrying a high level of energy throughout the show.
Director Jim Osorno stages many scenes effectively and provides smooth transitions throughout. However, the battle scene when the castle is stormed is extremely mild, and the buffoonish silliness of several songs is too over the top. The show seemed under rehearsed on opening night, with several obvious sound cues missed by a mile.
Other technical issues hurt the performance on opening night as well. A few costume malfunctions occurred, including one with Cogsworth that required some substantial adlibbing by the cast. Also, the device that aids in the transformation of the Beast to the Prince at the end of the show jammed, leaving the actor unable to free himself and requiring backstage personnel to come on stage and assist. Fortunately, the remaining cast members professionally continued with the scene, drawing attention away from the mishap, and some audience members may not have even noticed that anything was wrong.
Beauty and the Beast is a big show to design, with several settings, including a lavish castle. Scenic designer Matthew J. Evans does well with the limited stage space, and the set pieces are attractive, especially the backdrop for the tavern. The costumes as provided by J.T. Jones are sufficient and pay homage to the original designs from the film and Broadway. The, wigs though, including the cheesy Elvis-inspired hairdo for Gaston, could be better.
Disney's Beauty and the Beast is a solidly crafted show, and La Comedia provides an entertaining production due in large part to a talented and hard working cast. Despite some technical problems on opening night (which will hopefully soon be rectified), this staging is likely to please the vast majority of audiences.
Beauty and the Beast continues through August 28, 2005, and tickets can be ordered online at www.lacomedia.com or by phone at 1-800-677-9505.-- Scott Cain