Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Anastasia
The musical tells the story of a prince who is transformed into a beast after he turns away a beggar woman who had come to his door seeking shelter. The woman is actually an enchantress and the spell she cast also turns all of the prince's servants into inanimate objects. However, she tells the Beast that the spell can be broken if he can learn to love another and earn their love in return before the last petal of an enchanted rose falls. In a nearby village, a smart young woman named Belle dreams of escaping her small provincial town and the simple-minded people who live there, especially the boastful and boorish Gaston. Her father finds himself lost in the woods one day, stumbles upon the Beast's castle and is imprisoned by the Beast for trespassing. Belle sacrifices herself to free her father and in time finds that the Beast may not be as horrible as he seems. But can their growing love break the spell the Enchantress cast before it's too late?
Beauty and the Beast was the Disney company's first foray on Broadway and this stage adaptation beautifully expands the film for the stage, with new songs by the movie's original composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice and a smart and swift moving book by the film's screenwriter, Linda Woolverton. Menken and Rice's new songs are excellent, including a soaring ballad for the Beast that shows how his character is learning and growing, and a new comical tune for Gaston. The stage score also features a song discarded for the movie, "Human Again," written by Menken and the film's lyricist, the late Howard Ashman. The licensed version of the show also includes the song "Change in Me," which gives Belle a solo in the second act that shows that she too has grown from her experience, added to the show during the Broadway run.
Zao's cast has three stellar leads who add nuance to flesh out the two-dimensional cartoon characters they are playing. Rebecca Bryce is perfect as Belle. We see from her firm grasp on the part how Belle is fearless and smart with an abundance of determination. Bryce has a wonderful connection to all of the actors in the cast, which adds to the sense of care that Belle has with those around her, and Bryce's singing voice excels on her many songs. She makes first act solo, "Home," a moving understanding of what Belle is experiencing being kept in the Beast's castle without having the chance to say goodbye to her father, and her second-act solo, "Change in Me," is especially effective, ensuring that the audience sees, through well thought out lyric delivery, how Belle is changing due to her relationship with the Beast. Adam Guinn is equally as good as the Beast, letting us clearly understand how someone who feels he can't be loved due to the way he looks can snarl and swipe at someone who is trying to help him. The Beast changes throughout the show and Guinn does a good job of portraying how a petulant man-child can grow into someone who has feelings for those around him. His act one closer, "If I Can't Love Her," is sensational. Zac Bushman is excellent as Gaston, the self-centered man who only truly cares for himself. Bushman even adds a few fun solo moments to the big production number "Gaston" that show off his strong, bright and clear vocal abilities.
In the supporting cast, Benjermin Tietz and Matt Snell add plenty of humor as the witty and rambunctious candlestick Lumière and the overly worrisome and tightly wound clock Cogsworth. Priscilla Bertling infuses Mrs. Potts, the talking teapot, with warmth, charm and sensibility, and Zacary Nelson is simply adorable as her son Chip. I really like how Tyler Galley doesn't make Lefou, Gaston's comical sidekick, into the complete buffoon I've seen him played as in other productions. Galley's ability to not play the character overly broad makes him more realistic and less of a simpleton. Daniel Marburger is sweet and charming as Belle's father, and Brianne Gobeski and Elizabeth Bridgewater add a few fun moments to the show as Babette and Madame de la Grande Bouche.
Director Mickey Bryce ensures his cast all deliver portrayals that are close enough to their film counterparts while also including a few original touches that add a nice sense of realism to the piece. He also keeps the pace brisk with the use of three video screens that project background imagery throughout, which helps speed up the scene changes, and also uses the playing space on the floor in front of the audience and the aisles for appropriate moments in the show. Laura Christian's choreography, while fairly simple, makes wise use of the very large ensemble to turn several numbers into big showstoppers.
Mike Sanders' set design is gorgeous and reminiscent of something you might see in Disneyland, with one side of the stage representing some highly detailed buildings in the town and the other side an impressive section of the Beast's gothic castle. The costumes by Diana Grubb are superb and play off the familiar film designs. Bob Nelson's lighting design includes many dark moments full of shadows that don't skirt the serious scenes in the show. The sound has sometimes posed issues in past Zao shows but I'm happy to report that Matt Sanders' sound design delivers clear vocals throughout. C.J. O'Hara's music direction achieves a warm, full sound from the fairly large orchestra. My only quibble with the design and direction of the show has to do with how the (spoiler alert) transformation toward the end of the show is done, as you don't get a true sense of the magical aspect of the moment.
Beauty and the Beast is not only a beloved animated film but also a highly successful stage musical that beautifully delivers the important message of the film: that beauty is really found within. With just one slight downside, Zao Theatre's production of this magical show has gorgeous design elements, a winning cast, and strong direction that bring the film characters vibrantly to life on stage.
Beauty and the Beast runs through November 23, 2019, at Zao Theatre, 550 South Ironwood Drive, Apache Junction AZ. For information and tickets, visit www.zaotheatre.com or by call 602-320-3275.
Directed by Mickey Bryce