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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Musical Magic Reigns at Disney's Beauty and the Beast
at the Village Theatre

Beauty and the Beast
Eric Polani Jensen and Jennifer Paz
A beauty of a Beast and a brightly twinkling Lumiere are reason enough—and there are numerous other reasons—to catch Disney's Beauty and the Beast during its lengthy pre/post-holiday run at Village Theatre in Issaquah (or after it moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center). The biggest trick to making this adaptation of the Academy Award nominated Best Animated Film work on stage is humanizing its cartoon characters, and director Steve Tomkins has, in large part, hired a cast that does just that. The show feels long for a family musical, but that is a flaw in the respectable but over-extended stage version itself, not Tomkins' production. The book by Linda Woolverton follows the film rather slavishly, but there are a few too many additional songs added to the original score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (with additional, smoothly integrated Tim Rice lyrics, who stepped in for the late Ashman) and they tend to bog things down.

Still, the news is mostly good for this big production, including handsome scenic and lighting designs by Alex Berry, particularly an extraordinarily well done Beast's castle, and scads of fetching, eye candy costumes by Village vet Deane Middleton. Musical direction by Tim Symons is rich and robust, save an oddly slow tempo for the opening "Belle" number on opening night. Indeed, that number seemed a little bit off overall, with a decided lack of energy emanating from the ensemble, but the show quickly recovered and rarely flagged thereafter.

The "tale as old as time" tells of a bookish French village maiden named Belle, coveted by (but disinterested in) the handsome town bully, Gaston. She sets out to find her lost, absentminded inventor father and is captured, and ultimately enraptured, by a Prince who is under a spell of enchantment which has made him a fearsome looking beast and has been slowly transforming his household staff into inanimate objects. With more than a little help from such characters as the teapot Mrs. Potts, candelabra Lumiere, and Cogsworth the clock, the unlikely pair fall in love, and— despite unwelcome intervention from the swaggering Gaston—happily ever after comes about as the curtains close.

Jennifer Paz as Belle has just the right shimmering vocal style on all her songs, especially the plaintive "Home," and even makes the ballad "A Change in Me" (added in and then kept in the show mid-way during its decade or so on Broadway) seem necessary to the plot, though it most assuredly isn't. She gives a solid, straightforward account of the somewhat thankless role, which calls for her to be more reactive than active, versus that of all the quirky characters around her. Eric Polani Jensen has much more to work with as the Beast, and he hits all the levels necessary for the role, taking his character from a menacing, snarling creature to a love-struck, smitten hero. He finds all the humor and pathos that demand to be tapped in the role, and his rich baritone soars on his big love song, "If I Can't Love Her." However long Seattle holds onto this stalwart leading man, we may count our blessings. Nick DeSantis as Lumiere mines laugh upon laugh and channels the best qualities of both Maurice Chevalier and (the film's vocal creator) Jerry Orbach in all his scenes, yet comes up with takes and line readings that are not a nod to anyone. He effortlessly leads the mega-production number "Be Our Guest," which also benefits from Tomkins and co-choreographer Daniel Cruz's inventive staging, their best work in the show.

Unlike many a past Mrs. Potts, Bobbi Kotula offers a warmly maternal, slightly more upper crust and starchier take on the role so strongly associated with Angela Lansbury, and stamps it indelibly as her own creation. It is doubtful her evanescent rendition of the Academy Award winning title song left a single dry eye in the house. Ian Lindsay earns a solid bravo for his turn as the cantankerous yet cuddly Cogsworth, and Ellen McClain's good-natured send-up of vainglorious opera diva as the enchanted wardrobe is a scene-stealing turn. Troy L. Wageman ably fills the bill physically and vocally as Gaston, but his broad puffery and preening grow increasingly tedious and repetitive, perhaps as much the fault of the over expansion of the role in the stage version as of the performance itself. As Gaston's doltish, diminutive sidekick LeFou, John David Scott, a fine dancer, pops and rolls his eyes more than anyone outside of an animated film should be required to. Nods for fine work in much smaller roles go to Haley N. Ostrander as the sassy feather duster chanteuse Babette, Greg McCormick Allen's just broad enough turn as the deranged asylum proprietor Mon. D'Arque, young Anders Ledell as a charming Chip off the old Potts, and the amiable and agile Eric Brotherson as the Carpet. It is a pleasure that director/choreographer Tomkins, believing less is more, kept the charming number "Human Again" as a feature for the key enchanted supporting characters, rather than blowing it up into a full cast extravaganza.

Disney's Beauty and the Beast has already set individual ticket sale records for the Village, and performances have been added by popular demand. A critic-proof show it may be, but happily the strong merits of this production make it one to unhesitatingly recommend.

Disney's Beauty and the Beast runs through January 4, 2009, at the Village Theatre 303 Front Street North, Issaquah, WA and January 9, 2009 at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue, Everett, WA. For more information go to www.villagetheatre.org .


Photo: Jay Koh



- David Edward Hughes



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