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Chicago by John Olson

Disney's Beauty and the Beast
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's reviews of An Evening with Christine Ebersole and A True History of the Johnstown Flood

Beauty and the Beast
Liz Shivener
The credits have all apparently been thoroughly negotiated and clearly disclosed: "NETworks presents Disney's Beauty and the Beast." The production is not produced by Disney, but licensed from Disney. Lest this sound too dismissive, it should be noted that NETworks hired virtually the entire original Broadway creative to "re-explore and re-invent the show for this new tour." I can't make comparisons to the original production, but I take it that's code for "scaled down." Even so, this production is fairly elaborate by bus and truck standards even as it's noticeably less spectacular than Disney's Mary Poppins and The Lion King.

The sets are big and colorful, and the many costumes establish the formerly human characters (Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and the others) stuck in inanimate objects thanks to the curse that turned the young prince into a beast. Stanley Meyer's redesigned sets are mostly flats and drops. They don't really suggest a bewitched castle, and Belle's little town seems small indeed, but judged by standards other than a Disney Broadway production or a first national tour, they may be impressive enough. The company had a few technical problems the night critics were invited. Mikes were occasionally not on and there was some apparent feedback at one point. There were a few moments that seemed notably low-tech, like transformations from man to beast or vice versa which are accomplished through blackouts and pauses while the characters change costumes and masks. And there was also the issue of Gaston's death. He is apparently supposed to fall backwards off a staircase but noticeably stopped his fall before a blackout occurred.

The cast is non-Equity, but boasts consistently terrific singing voices. Liz Shivener has the sweetness and clarity expected of a Disney heroine and makes a charming and spunky Belle. Justin Glaser and Nathaniel Hackmann as the Beast and Gaston knock their songs out of the park with their booming baritones while Sabina Petra's lilting voice gives us a touching rendition of the title song. Glaser has some fun with the Beast's more adolescent behavior—out of character with his more aggressive moments, but his bits seemed to resonate with the kids in the audience. Merritt David Janes's performance as Lumière owes much to Jerry Orbach's interpretation from the animated film and is winningly charming. Christopher Spencer as Maurice and Keith Kirkwood as Cogsworth, contribute nice character work as well.

Rob Roth has again directed the production. His cast performs mostly in a presentational children's theater style, so there's not much subtlety or nuance, but Shivener and Glaser have enough heart to make us feel glad Belle and the Prince get together at the end. The cast lands all jokes intended for the kids, but have less luck with the awkward PG-rated innuendos in Linda Woolverton's book, mostly surrounding Babette and the Wardrobe (Madame de la Grande Bouche). Matt West again choreographed and his dance steps here are so simple and familiar that the big production number "Be Our Guest" feels like a little bit of a waste of all the costumes and scenery employed in it.

Still, there's the wonderful Alan Menken/Howard Ashman/Tim Rice score. Sung as capably as it is by this cast and accompanied by a rich sounding orchestra of 11 (apparently with electronic enhancement), it gets a satisfying performance. It all seemed to work for the kids, who are really the intended audience for this production. They'll have a good enough time here, but other theater fans looking to be dazzled by stagecraft (and families on a strict theater budget) will be happier waiting for the real deal of a Disney production.

Disney's Beauty and the Beast plays through April 4, 2010, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago. Tickets available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, by phone at 800-775-2000 at all Ticketmaster ticket centers and online at www.ticketmaster.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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