For many years of reviewing regional theatre, I have looked around the audience with growing concern at the many grey and balding heads. Where, I asked myself, in this age of Netflix, YouTube, video games, and movie theatres with reclining chairs will the next generation of live theatre patrons come from?
Now I have an answer.
Riverside’s promotion of “Beauty and the Beast” is clear that this is the Disney version. Unlike the haunting 1946 Jean Cocteau movie, this is based on a cartoon - a cartoon that was massively popular, won an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe, and evolved into the Broadway musical that ran for over thirteen years. The “Beast” has been roaming the country ever since, and on Saturday night, found a theatre filled with young people and their families. Perhaps this experience will become the treasured memory that will have them returning to live theatre as adults.
Artistic director, Patrick A’Hearn emphasizes the fairy tale heritage of this story by opening with the opening of a book. Characters, music, lights and color spill on to the stage to tell this very old and enchanting story.
Now I’m going to say up front that adults playing cartoons isn’t my cup of tea. The Disney brand isn’t known for subtle shadings and the deadly sins are rarely worse than vanity and pride. What Disney’s cartoons come-to-life lack is the sense of discovery that more sophisticated audiences may seek, but if you can live without that, you’ll be happy in this. That’s because, given the nature of this ‘beast’, the most important elements are done right.
Set in JD Madsen’s deliciously detailed scene design, A’Hearn’s staging ebbs and flows with organic rhythms. The opening darkness of the spell which transforms the arrogant young man into a beast shifts smoothly to the simple villagers and “silly girls” who dance Stephanie Wood’s vigorous choreography to the live orchestra of Leigh Delano.
Belle (Nicki Elledge) and her father, Maurice (in a warm portrayal by Robert Beard) display a personal and vocal harmony in “No Matter What”. Miss Elledge has the kind of clear musical theatre soprano that distinguishes all of the indistinguishable Disney heroines – Snow White, Cinderella, etc. – and brings a vivacious spin to the virtuous Belle. Somehow, she is the only village girl who can resist Gaston (Kevin Cleary). How is it possible? That fine booming voice details his many charms in “Gaston” (a number reminiscent of Lancelot’s “C’est Moi”) and all the villagers agree. Perhaps it’s his over-caffeinated sidekick, Lefou, (Zachary Bullock) but no matter. The Beast is waiting.
Wyn Delano captures the pathos of the Beast’s situation in the songs “How Long Must This Go On? and “If I Can’t Love Her”, but I object to the sustained roaring which leaves little room for nuance. His gradual Act II transformation as he falls in love with Belle lifts some of that monochromatic affect, and his eventual return to humanity makes a gratifying denouement.
Cartoon or not, the company of enchanted household items puts on a dazzling revue in the spirited “Be Our Guest” and once more, in the hour of release from enchantment in “Human Again.” All of these characters are a delight, but for sheer ‘watchability’ there’s the motherly teapot, Mrs. Potts (Sherri Edelen), and Lumiere, the charming French candelabra (Rj Pavel) who carries a torch for Babette, (Alona Arafino) the feather duster. Andrea Kahane is properly over the top as Madame De La Grand Bouche, the opera singer turned wardrobe.
Kudos to costume designer Kyna Chilcot for these demanding adaptations.
“Beauty and the Beast” with “Disney” in front of the name is a kind of truth in advertising. With that said, Riverside has done an admirable job of recreating the experience of Disney’s Broadway musical version to this beautiful and timeless tale. If that’s your cup of tea, you’re in for a treat.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”
Where: Riverside Center For the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Pkwy., Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit Riversidedt.com
Playing through: Nov. 25