Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The non-Equity national tour of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, is a tale of two perspectives, rather than the advertised tale as old as time. If you aren't familiar with the stage adaptation of the animated film which opened on Broadway in 1994, you'll likely appreciate much about this live version, including some quality new songs (along with those from the movie), a solid cast, and characters with more depth. However, those of you who know the Broadway version (or earlier touring production) are in for shock, in the form of cut songs and scenes. And, regardless of your experience with the stage version of the musical, you will find one of the most lackluster set designs found in a professional tour in some time.
The stage version 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 earn that person's love in return, before the last pedal 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 is by Linda Woolverton, who also wrote the screenplay for the animated feature. The story interweaves romance, fantasy, broad comedy, and moral lessons into a fun and intriguing tale. For the stage, the characters are much more fully realized and developed (the new songs help greatly in this area), and 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. In this mounting, however, some scenes (including the very funny one where the townsfolk enter the castle and are attacked by the castle objects) have been cut or replaced by lesser material in comparison to the Broadway edition.
The score for the original film was by the talented duo of Alan Menken (music) and the late Howard Ashman (lyrics). All of their fine songs, 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. For those familiar with the Broadway score, "No Matter What" and "Maison des Lunes" are absent in this tour.
This show provides many opportunities to showcase a number of performers. Emily Behny is a sweet yet strong-willed Belle. Her singing is pleasant and suitable to the role, and her delivery of dialogue is extremely reminiscent of Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth. As the Beast, Dane Agostinis provides strong vocals, brings forth the social awkwardness of the creature with much humor, and supplies the energy that the role requires. Logan Denninghoff shows off impressive vocals and stage presence as Gaston, and he and Andrew Kruep (as Lefou) get lots of laughs through their physical comedy. Also providing fine performances in supporting roles are Michael Haller (Lumiere), Julia Louise Hosack (Mrs. Potts), Benjamin Lovell (Cogsworth), Jen Bechter (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Christopher Spencer (Maurice) and Chandon Jones (Babette). The nearly thirty cast members do well in carrying a high level of energy throughout the show.
As on Broadway and earlier tours, Rob Roth is the director of this incarnation. While he still provides the show with a generally quick pace, appropriate tone, and a strong connection between characters, the scene transitions which were previously smooth are now clunky, and the stage magic of the piece is diminished greatly. The visually fun and lively choreography by Matt West is highlighted in "Be Our Guest" and "Gaston." Musical Director Carolyn Violi capably leads the fine orchestra.
Stanley A. Meyer provided Beauty and the Beast with a lavish and formidable scenic design on Broadway. Unfortunately, his design here is substantially scaled down and just downright ugly (the proscenium arches look like they were painted by 11 year olds). Instead of an impressive castle, we get a door and two small staircases that are distractingly moved by actors dressed in mysterious, but extremely vague, costumes. Previously impressive set pieces such as the castle's library and Gaston's lodge are now minimal. The attractive costumes (save those mentioned above) by Ann Hould-Ward garnered a Tony Award. Natasha Katz provides her usual wonderful lighting, though the sets she is lighting aren't very pretty to see.
The current national tour of Disney's Beauty and the Beast showcases a mix of capable performers, songs and a story that have been expanded from the animated film but smaller than that found on Broadway when the show premiered, and a disappointing set design. Audiences seeking a family-friendly piece with talented performers will find this production sufficient. Avid theatergoers already familiar with the stage adaptation are bound to be let down, however. Sometimes, less is actually less, and taking a cheaper route in staging a show makes the show look cheap.
Beauty and the Beast continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 9, 2011. Tickets can be ordered by calling 1 (800) 294-1816.