Friday, July 31, 2015

"Beauty and the Beast" at the Muny: meeting up with an old friend

L-R: Nathaniel Hackman, Kate Rockwell
and company
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This past Wednesday, the Muny gave me a chance to visit a friend I hadn't seen in fifteen years. I'm not talking about a human friend, but a theatrical one: Disney's 1994 stage adaptation of the 1991 hit animated film "Beauty and the Beast." The years, I'm happy to say, have been kind to it, and the Muny's first-rate production certainly does it justice.

For the benefit of those of you who haven't made "BatB"'s acquaintance, know that it's a big, brash, amusement park of a show. It's fast, colorful, loud, opulent, shamelessly sentimental, cheerfully vulgar, and—there's no getting around it—highly entertaining. The well-known story is simple enough to keep the kids' attention, and polished enough to amuse all but the most jaded adults. If this isn't a family show, I don't know what is.

The book, by Linda Woolverton, follows her own original screenplay pretty closely, and Alan Menken composed seven additional musical numbers to flesh out a score that, while adequate for a feature-length cartoon, was too skimpy for a two-act musical. The first time I heard it, some of the additional material Menken composed with lyricist Tim Rice (Menken's long-time collaborator Howard Ashman died in 1991) sounded less inspired than the originals. Now, they fall more easily on the ear. In fact, some of them—like Gaston's hilariously egocentric "Me" and Beast's despairing "If I Can't Love Her"—are real gems.

Time changes one's perceptions. That's how it goes with old friends sometimes.

L-R: Kate Rockwell and Nicholas Rodriguez
As has often been the case lately, the Muny has assembled an impeccable cast of accomplished musical theatre performers for the lead and supporting roles. Most of them have graced the Forest Park stage in the past, and all do outstanding work.

Kate Rockwell, who made a stunning Muny debut in "Tarzan" last year, impresses once again as Belle, with a bright, clear voice and an obvious awareness of the character's many moods. Nicholas Rodriguez (Ritchie Valens in last month's "Buddy—the Buddy Holly Story") boasts a big, powerful baritone and brilliantly captures Beast's lumbering, inhuman gait and body language, which makes his magical second-act transformation that much more effective.

I'm not wild about the way his makeup placed the Beast's fangs entirely outside of his mouth, in front of his lower jaw, but I assume that whoever designed it felt this was necessary in order for those fangs to "read" in such a large space.

L-R: Nathaniel Hackman, Josh Walden
Michael Hartung
Nathaniel Hackman also brings a big voice to his performance as the self-absorbed Gaston. As written, the character combines the intelligence of Li'l Abner with the ethics of Snidley Whiplash, and Mr. Hackman does equal justice to the character's cluelessness and cunning. As his dim but loyal henchman LeFou (French for "the loony"), Michael Hartung makes an auspicious Muny debut. He's a remarkable physical comic, turning all of Gaston's punches into wonderfully acrobatic pratfalls.

Rob McClure, who did such great work in "Addams Family" and "Hello Dolly" last year, returns in the plum role of Lumiere, the human candelabra. The role is an obvious homage to the late Maurice Chevalier, and Mr. McClure makes the most of it, complete with a hokey French accent and brash "show biz" demeanor.

Lumiere plays Costello to the Abbot of Cogsworth, slowly being turned into a clock by the fairy spell. Steve Rosen is Cogsworth, and it was interesting to hear what his real voice sounded like compared to the absurd, not-quite-falsetto head voice he used for Uncle Fester in "The Addams Family" last year. Although the uptight Cogsworth is miles away from the zany Fester, Mr. Rosen completely inhabits the role.

Marva Hicks is the maternal Mrs. Potts, beautifully delivering the title song with just a touch of soulful melisma. Deidre Goodwin is a comically flirtatious Babette, and young Spencer Jones is charming as Chip, the boy-turned-cup, despite spending almost the entire show as a disembodied head on a teacart. And Lenny Wolpe is loveably whimsical as Belle's absent-minded professor of a dad, Maurice.

L-R: Steve Rosen, Rob McClure
The elaborate sets and illusions that were part of the original "Beauty and the Beast" aren't really possible on the Muny's massive, open stage. But Robert Mark Morgan's scenic designs, Nathan W. Scheuer's lights, and Matthew Young's video designs do a respectable job of replicating the experience, especially in the two big production numbers "Be Our Guest" and "Human Again".

The Beast's final transformation back to human is nicely done as well, using some time-honored principles of stage magic. Robin L. McGee's fanciful costumes and John Metzner's wigs effectively capture the fairytale look so essential to the show.

Matt Lenz's direction and Vince Pesce's choreography make the most of that huge stage, filling it with dancers and the adult and children's choruses for those big numbers. I was a little puzzled by the decision to cut the ballet sequence depicting the comic battle between the villagers and the Beast's servants in the second act, though. It makes the final confrontation between the Beast and Gaston feel a bit abrupt and the "Mob Song" that precedes it somewhat irrelevant, but unless you know the original show well I doubt that you'll miss it.

If you're the sort of theatre-goer who doesn't necessarily see the Disney organization as a leading contender for the title of Great Satan of American Musical Theatre and you're willing to accept "Beauty and the Beast" on its own terms, I think you'll find the Muny's a diverting but not particularly deep evening's entertainment. Its creators have set out to produce a live version of a cartoon musical, and in this they've succeeded admirably.

The Muny's "Beauty and the Beast" is a solid evening of family entertainment, and while smaller fry might get tired and restless at a show that ends just short of 11 p.m., older kids will probably enjoy it just as much as adults. Performances continue on the outdoor stage in Forest Park through August 7. For more information, visit the Muny web site.

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