Tale As Old As Time
Disney's Beauty and the Beast is exactly the kind of entertainment I deplore: a corporate-inspired translation of a cutie-pie musical cartoon adapted from classic literature. It's peopled by actors dressed in character costumes that all but swallow their performances, which are anyway built on attempts to ape the motion picture line drawings that inspired them.
Having said so, I must say this as well: If one absolutely must stage musicals such as Beauty and the Beast, this co-production of Phoenix Theatre and Valley Youth Theatre is the way to do it. The direction is topnotch, the production numbers big and showy, and many of the performances first-rate.
Which is really saying something, since the folks who translated this mini-epic wrote characters more cartoonish than their animated film counterparts. The result is sillier and more broad, presumably to make the show more appealing to kids despite the preponderance of swoony moon-in-June ballads grafted onto the expanded stage version. These new songs aren't as sweet or catchy as those from the film, which are also included, but Beauty and the Beast is at least as good as most contemporary musicals, filled with likable tunes and crammed with flashy effects and loads of big dance numbers.
Key among those numbers is "Be Our Guest," one of the film's signature numbers and, as staged here by Robert Kolby Harper, a lollapalooza of a tribute to Busby Berkeley full of flashy footwork and a kick line of dancing kitchenware. (Don't miss Joe Kremer's flamboyantly funny turn as a giant whisk.)
Although her heavy rouge and gloppy lashes make her look more like a hooker than a girl from a storybook, Katie Hart Olsen is excellent as Belle. Her clear soprano and youthful enthusiasm are at the center of nearly every scene, and she props up one or two sleepy spots with fiery tantrums that are fun to watch.
Her leading men are Brad Spencer, whose big pipes and clownish comedy are best displayed in "Gaston," a stomping, raucous number lifted up by rowdy choral chants, and Stuart Ambrose as the Beast. Ambrose may be a veteran of daytime soaps, but his magnificent singing voice and ability to emote through pounds of yak fur suggest that he's slumming here. When he hits that last big note at the end of "If I Can't Love Her," it's easy to understand why his gingham-clad hostage is willing to hang out in his dungeon.
It's a big, brightly drawn serving of hokum, but musical comedy devotees, fans of the film version, and even those of us who don't love this sort of thing will enjoy Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
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