Friday, July 7, 2017

"Disney's Beauty and the Beast"

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Alan Menken (Music); Howard Ashman & Tim Rice (Lyrics);
Linda Woolverton (Book)

The first time I saw Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on the big screen as an animated film, I immediately pictured the opening number “Belle” as made for the big stage.  As the song’s angelic-looking namesake roams aimlessly nose in a book around her “little town, a quiet village,” townspeople of all shapes, sorts, and sizes rush about in chores and errands, taking time to jeer and point at her while singing in wonderful harmonies, “There she goes again ... She’s nothing like the rest of us, is Belle.”  That film went on to become the first animated picture ever to be nominated in the Oscar Best Picture category (1992), and its stage version (the first Disney film ever made into a fully staged musical) secured nine 1994 Tony nominations (including Best Musical) and won the Olivier’s Best in 1998.  Broadway’s ninth-longest-running musical, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, has since toured 13 countries and 115 cities.  Now Oregon Shakespeare Festival stages a fascinatingly innovative, deliciously dark, and highly entertaining Beauty and the Beast that does proud for Alan Menkin (Music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (Lyrics), and Linda Woolverton (Book).

Based on a mid-eighteenth-century French fairy tale, Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast is at its heart a story of two rejects by their local, narrow-minded society who stand up to rigid social norms and to dare fall in love, even though they are on the outside as different as night and day.  Belle is an educated village girl who opines to her eccentric, inventing father Maurice, “I’m surrounded by people, but I’m so lonely.”  She is the only girl in town not falling silly heads over heels for the handsome, muscled brute Gaston, who only has eyes for her and has intentions they will be married.  

A woods-wandering, soon-lost Maurice (a wide-eyed, always curious Michael J. Hume) finds himself imprisoned in a scaly, hunchbacked Beast’s castle (the Beast being a once-callous-hearted prince under a witch’s spell), a condition Belle remedies by offering herself as hostage in exchange for her father’s freedom.  Surrounded in this doomed but enchanted household by a host of servants slowly turning into common objects like clocks, dishes, bureaus, and candlesticks, Belle slowly strikes a friendship and more with the horned, hairy master with long tail and gruff, growling disposition.  As is true in all Disney stories, just when the going looks good that they might overcome the spell, turning everyone back into real people (including the once-handsome prince), disaster and evil arrive ... and well, the rest of the story is of course pure fairy tale, Disney magic, and audience pleasing.

As the heroine Belle, Jennie Greenberry brings a strong sense of self, a courageous curiosity, and a knowledge of what it means to be seen as ‘the other.’  She also sings with a voice that is crystal clear and able both to soar with unwavering and long-sustained grace as well as to modulate into contemplative reflection in songs like “Home” and “Transformation.” 

As the Beast, Jordan Barbour is at first wildly and angrily animalistic as his pounces with furious stomps, roars in big blasts, and shakes in fury.  But behind his mask of fur, warts and beefed-up muscle, he also ably conveys the Beast’s insecurity, shyness, and tender heart as well as sings — unexpectedly coming from a brutal monster — in round, rich tones like those coming from a French horn, “If I Can’t Love Her” (“let the world be done with me”).    When he joins Belle in “Transformation,” Mr. Barbour’s contribution is just under-sold enough to be stunning and to reveal the truth of his change from Beast to prince.

As a couple, the diminutive Belle and the gigantic Beast convincingly waltz their way into each other’s hearts — but only after some playful stumbling about and a couple of toes stepped on — during “Beauty and the Beast” (sung by a wonderfully voiced teapot played by Kate Mulligan as Mrs. Potts).  There is no doubt that this prince and princess belong together; but different from previous Disney couplings, it is Belle who is the real heroine, the mover-and-shaker, and the brains behind this ultimate union.

As anyone who has ever seen the original film will quickly attest, the real fun of this outing comes from all the fabulously delightful characters inhabiting the house.  There is the aforementioned Mrs. Potts as the hostess-with-the-mostest teapot with bubbly vocals to match her cheerful disposition. Her young son, Chip, is a teacup rolling around smiling and chirping  with a voice angelic and a disposition sunny as his mom’s (played by understudy Cato Sharma for regular Naiya Gardiner the night I attended).  Daniel T. Parker is the appropriately pompous and cautious yet always funny Cogsworth the clock (and former head  butler) who is joined by his big-hearted, best pal Lumiere (a very French, former valet played by David Kelly, with wick-lit hands, the body of a candle holder, and a singing voice not unlike a young Maurice Chavalier).  The four of them along with a former opera diva, Mme. de la Grande Bouche (the richly voiced Britney Simpson, now a chest of many drawers), and a sexy maid, Babette (Melissa Jones with a French-accented voice that sparkles as she sings, covered in feathers as a duster), combine in one of the night’s highlight numbers, “Be Our Guest.”  Along with a dancing/singing chorus line of food-tossing enchanted objects and even a kick-line of backstage staff, the most famous number of this musical comes to full life and sound in an explosion of rousing movement and harmony (thanks to the excellent choreography of Erika Chong Shuch).  The household fixtures return in the second half for an equally uplifting number, “Human Again,” when every note of the ensemble’s light, airy harmony denotes full hope and optimism that the spell is about to be broken.

But even the bad guys in Disney productions are stars in their own rights and are often the best parts of the show.  James Ryen’s Gaston is a buffoon bully with an ego almost as high as the hair puffed on his head.  In his red leather coat and tight pants barely containing his muscled thighs, he towers over his many townspeople worshippers in stature and exaggerated poses that look like ridiculous covers for Men’s Health Magazine.  But even though he excels first comedically and later as the real monster of the story (versus the Beast being the bad one), this Gaston in song falls short of the potential a number like “Gaston” offers.  Likewise, the normally crowd-favorite LeFou, sidekick of Gaston, leaves little lasting impression in this production, at least as played the night I attended by the understudy, Kate Hurster.

Where this OSF production outshines any I have ever seen is in the brilliant and meaningful directorial decisions by Eric Tucker.  Beauty and the Beast is about a number of transformations brought on by a curse, a miracle, a young woman’s courage, and the softening of a beast’s hardened and bitter heart.  Mr. Tucker populates the production with many transformations as townspeople become the moving parts of Maurice’s latest invention, as later they become wall fixtures and windows as part of a set design, as ominous trees in a dark forest become vicious wolves, and even as backstage hands become a high-stepping kick-line.  

Time passing is critical in this story as each hour gone brings the moment closer where the curse cannot be reversed.  In this production, choreographer and director have teamed time and again in the use of circling characters (usually twelve) to progress in dance or other coordinated movements in a circle around some central figure — all like a ticking clock.  This director also masterfully ensures one scene blends into another with the next scene’s characters moving into position among those of the last without there ever being any distraction.  Such are just a few of the many decisions Eric Tucker has made that truly set this Beauty apart in memorable manner from those I have seen in the past.

The show’s costumes designed Ana Kuzmanic are also in many ways ground-breaking for this particular musical.  Gone is the children’s storybook look often employed and instead comes a look sophisticated in its overall black-and-white scheme and in outfits striking in shapes and forms unusual in both flair and fun.  Her ‘household’ characters whose body forms are in the midst of becoming dishes and furniture are fantastically creative and in such detail and color to be worth a show unto themselves — not to mention the ugliest, most ferocious Beast I have seen to-date, yet one whose emerging humanity is allowed to be seen through the warts, hairs, and bumps.

Lighting by Jennifer Schiever in the gigantic Elizabethan Theatre provides moments scary, magical, and downright fun.  Likewise does the excellent sound design of Joanna Lynne Staub.

With daily news dark with national leaders ridiculing women and making derogatory comments about people different from the majority, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast takes on a meaning in 2017 more than just that of a fairy tale love story.  Kudos to Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its timely production and for giving us a story that has just enough of a dark edge to challenge its audience to survey how they look at and treat that person passing in the street who, like Belle, is “strange” and “peculiar.”

Rating: 5 E

Photo by Jenny Graham


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