Saturday, August 6, 2016

ASF: Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"

With temperatures in the high 90s, and the school year about to start, what better way to spend an afternoon or evening than at the final performances of Disney's Beauty and the Beast at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Its extended run has been selling out, and audiences have been cheering during curtain calls...with good reason: it is a charming lavish production suitable for all ages.

First performed at ASF ten years ago, Disney's Beauty and the Beast has lost none of its appeal; and with several actors reprising their roles, there is also a bit of nostalgia in the air.

Based on a 1740 tale by French novelist Villeneuve, the story has been revised, updated, set to music and dance, made into several films, and has variant stage versions, the Disney product being arguably the most successful. -- With a book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and with ASF's production design team transforming the Festival stage into a fairy tale kingdom, this is a show that is bound to please.

A spell being cast on a haughty Prince, turning him into a Beast (and all his domestic servants into household objects and cutlery) until a woman comes along who can love him before a single rose loses all its petals, sets the action going. -- With the Beast [Alexander Mendoza] holed up in his castle and getting increasingly cruel, we are introduced to Belle [Stephanie Rothenberg], the local "beauty" who is perceived as odd by the townfolk because she reads books and isn't interested in the strapping narcissistic heartthrob Gaston [Bryant Martin]. She and her eccentric inventor father Maurice [a sympathetic James Bowen] become objects of derision in the town, and when Maurice takes refuge in the Beast's castle after being attacked by wolves, Belle frees him by exchanging her own captivity for his, setting in motion a relationship that grows from mistrust to understanding -- and eventually love -- between Beauty and the Beast.

Featured servants have a lot to do with softening the Beast's behavior and bringing the couple together, as their fate is linked to his. Head butler, now clock Cogsworth [Rodney Clark], along with candelabra Lumiere [Billy Sharpe], teapot Mrs. Potts [Barbara Broughton] and her teacup son Chip [Gavin Campbell], feather duster Babette [Erin Chupinsky] and wardrobe Madame de la Grand Bouche [Fredena J. Williams], join forces to bring this about. Together, this ensemble keeps the show's magic alive.

Director Geoffrey Sherman and Musical Director Joel Jones keep the action moving on Paul Wonsek's stunning magical set, as the company of additional ensemble actors in Susan Branch Towne's inventive fairy tale costumes play an assortment of townspeople, wolves, kitchen utensils, gargoyles, and flowers. Paul Hebron makes his mark, both as the compassionate Bookseller and the contrastingly sinister Monsieur D'Arque who plots with Gaston to declare Maurice insane. -- Production numbers in praise of "Gaston", led by his comic foil Le Fou [Henry Hodges is a delightful clown], and welcoming Belle to the castle in "Be Our Guest", led by Lumiere, and the optimistic "Human Again" as the servants anticipate the spell's being broken, are show stoppers.

But, it is the relationship between Belle and the Beast that takes center stage. Ms. Rothenberg's portrayal makes Belle a modern woman who is devoted to her father, has a mind of her own and won't tolerate rude behavior either from Mr. Martin's swaggering Gaston or Mr. Mendoza's rough and demanding Beast. -- Though the Beast has been under a spell for a long time, Belle casts her own spell on him through her goodness and ability to see beyond the surface of his ugliness to the inherent goodness within.

The singing is uniformly excellent from the company, as well as from the principal actors, whether Mr. Martin's baritone that matches Gaston's powerful characterization, or Mr. Mendoza's gruff Beast whose inner temperament is displayed in the introspective "How Long Must This Go On?" and "If I Can't Have Her", or Ms. Rothenberg's clear soprano in virtually all her numbers. And, Ms. Broughton's title number "Beauty and the Beast" is confident and touching.

In all, the ASF production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast has audiences in its thrall; thoroughly entertaining, it is an enchanting Summertime delight.