Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The tale of a beautiful person, usually female, transforming another, usually male, who is in the form of an animal or beast into his true handsome and kind self is really "as old as time," as the song goes. An African folktale, "The Snake with Five Heads," Chinese folktale "The Fairy Serpent," and Norwegian story, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," are all variation of this same motif, with a good-hearted bride paired with an animal groom who becomes transformed into a handsome man. Beauty and the Beast, as we know it, is a French rendition. This allows for a charming Gallic village setting, in which Belle, our heroine, lives in an elegant turreted castle with the Beast, who was a spoiled and insensitive prince, prompting an enchantress to cast a spell upon him and all his household that can only be broken when he not only falls in love, but wins love in return.
The stage musical is based on the smash hit animated Disney movie version, with a screenplay by Linda Wolverton, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman. It was a huge success as a musical film, becoming the first animated film ever nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Film category. In 1994 its adaptation as a stage musical opened on Broadway. Wolverton adapted her screenplay for the book, and Alan Menken composed additional songs with Tim Rice replacing lyricist Howard Ashman, who died two months before the movie's opening. Critics were not quite sure what to make of dancing silverware and such, but audiences loved it and the show played on and on to become the tenth longest-running musical in Broadway history to date.
So much for its history and pedigree. This new production of Beauty and the Beast lifts the lid on what is possible to do with this show, and if you've seen it before, you will still be wowed by what is on stage at the Ordway. That includes performances, staging and design–the entire package.
One might suppose that a fantasy-themed show based on a children's story such as this depends on design and staging to win over audiences, but first and foremost here is the cast. Rajané Katurah gathered a raft of plaudits in just a few years for performances on numerous local stages–including another fairy-tale lead, as Cinderella at Children's Theatre company, before recently relocating to New York. The Ordway was smart to woo her back to play Belle. She brings her beautiful voice, which adds an edge of soul to the score's classic Broadway quality, and a verve that makes Belle a full character. She brings luster to two of the score's loveliest songs, "Home" and "A Change in Me," both of which were written for the stage musical. Her gradual softening toward the Beast, recognizing that there is something decent lurking beneath the matted fur and claws, comes across with total conviction.
Katurah is fully matched by Nathaniel Hackmann as the Beast. Hackmann has not been seen in the Twin Cities before, but his long list of accomplishments includes previous touring in this role along with several Broadway assignments. His voice is glorious, lifting the enthralling "If I Can't Love Her" to the rafters. Hackmann's energy, bounding about in beastly form, makes his characterization as part monster, part frisky puppy completely winning.
A trio of superb singer-actors play the trio of household staff transformed by the enchantress into inanimate objects: Phillip Taratula as the delightfully fussy grandfather clock Cogsworth; Max Wojtanowicz as a bon vivant candelabra, Lumière; and Jamecia Bennet as Mrs. Potts, the housekeeper turned into a teapot. Bennet has the honor of singing the rapturous title song, and I have never heard it sung any better, while Wojtanowicz gets to lead off the riotous "Be Our Guest" with pizzazz, and affects an apt swain in pursuit of Babette (perky Jorie Ann Kosel), a housemaid turned into a feather duster.
The villain of the piece is actually not the beast, but arrogant, boorish and violent Gaston, who claims Belle as his bride, owing to the fact that she is the town's must beautiful mademoiselle. Regan Featherstone plays the role, coming closest in the cast to capturing the precise character, including a physical resemblance, of the animated movie version. He sings and prances with gusto in "Gaston," and stirs up a rabid crowd with demonic force in "The Mob Song." Rush Benson is terrific as Gaston's imbecile sidekick LeFou, with great opportunities to display his gifts both as a dancer and a comic.
Thomasina Petrus plays Madame de la Grande Bouche, and T. Michael Rambo plays Belle's brilliantly befuddled inventor father Maurice. Both are among the best of the Twin Cities' stage talents, often playing lead roles, but here give memorable performances in smaller character parts. The ensemble too includes performers who would sometimes be seen taking bows in lead roles, but in its entirety, the cast is generous with their talent, each performing to the highest imaginable caliber.
Those wonderful performances are deftly orchestrated by director Michael Heitzman, who several years ago gave us a phenomenally rethought 42nd Street, also at the Ordway. Heitzman's staging makes use of a beautifully rendered sets and projections designed by Adam Koch and Steven Royal, with towers on either side of the stage, moveable staircases, and other set pieces which, along with Cory Pattak's lighting design, meld seamlessly throughout the show. Ryan Moller's costumes are abundantly imaginative, with no detail overlooked. The beautiful score is played to perfection by a robust twelve-piece orchestra conducted by music director Elisa Santa. Last, but in no way least, is Robbie Roby's choreography, elegant and eye catching throughout but especially catching fire with "Be Our Guest" in Act I, and once more with "Human Again" in Act II.
This amazing Beauty and the Beast would be a winner any time of year but is especially welcome as totally appropriate family holiday entertainment for those open to a change from Scrooges, Grinches, and nutcracker princes. The shimmering beauty of Rice Park, lit up for the holidays, announces the season through the glass-fronted Ordway lobby. The show within the Ordway provides boundless entertainment with the message that tales of enchantment with happy endings are always in season.
Beauty and the Beast runs through December 31, 2022, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $56.00 - $178.50. Ticket availability is limited. For tickets and information call 651-224-4222 or visit www.ordway.org.
Book: Linda Wolverton; Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; Director: Michael Heitzman, originally direction by Robert Jess Roth; Choreography: Robbie Roby; Scenic and Projection Design: Adam Koch and Steven Royal; Costume Design: Robert Moller; Lighting Design: Cory Pattak; Sound Design: Andy Horka and Jim Pfitzinger; Hair, Wig and Make Up Design: Bobbie Zlotnik; Orchestrations: Danny Troob; Music Director and Conductor: Elise Santa; Music Supervision: David Holcenberg; Vocal Arrangements: David Friedman; Dance Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Incidental Music: Michael Kosarin; Fight Choreographer: Jason Paul Tate; Resident Choreographer: Renee Guittar; Stage Manager: Sharon Bach., Assistant Stage Managers: Kathryn Sam Houkom, Z Makila, Rachael Rhoades.
Cast: Tate Ashcraft* (Chip), Jamecia Bennet (Mrs. Potts), Rush Benson (Lefou), Margie Bergman (ensemble), Brian Bose (ensemble, Reese Britts (ensemble), Megan Carver (ensemble), Taylor Colleton (silly girl/ensemble), Noah Coon (ensemble), Shannon Dancler (ensemble), James Delage (ensemble), Regan Featherstone (Gaston), Camren Graham* (Chip); Jackson Grove (ensemble), Nathaniel Hackmann (The Beast), Jon Andrew Hegge (Monsieur D'Arque/ensemble), Grace Janiszewski (ensemble), Rajané Katurah (Belle), Madeline Kendall (ensemble), Jorie Ann Kosel (Babette), Abby Magalee (ensemble), Andrea Mislan (enchantress/silly girl/ensemble), Wesley Mouri (bookseller/ensemble), Kym Chambers Otto (ensemble), Brett Pederson (ensemble), Thomasina Petrus (Madame de la Grande Bouche), T. Mychael Rambo (Maurice), Emily Scinto (ensemble), Jon Michael Stiff (ensemble), Sam Stoll (young prince/ensemble), Carl Swanson (ensemble), Phillip Taratula (Cogsworth), Dayle Theisen (silly girl/ensemble), Chris Tipps (ensemble), Max Wojtanowicz (Lumière;). *Alternating performances