BEAUTY AND THE BEAST review By MARILYN JOZWIK
At first blush, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” might appear an odd choice for a holiday show. But after seeing Sunset Playhouse’s lavish, fun-filled and thoroughly entertaining production there’s no doubt it was a wise choice. Plus, the transformation of the Beast is not unlike those in other holiday stories, like “A Christmas Carol.”
From the opening scene it is apparent the show is something special. A handsome, spacious set of large, dark side staircases is mostly in shadows as the full, accomplished orchestra – playing Alan Menken’s beautiful music — accompanies the scene in the prince’s foreboding, yet opulent, mansion where a ball is taking place. The prince is arrogant and selfish. His unkindness catches up to him after an old woman casts a spell, turning him into an unsightly Beast and his servants into objects. If the Beast can find a woman to love, who will love him in return, the spell will be broken.
Sunset’s version has all the makings of a full-scale Broadway production in the skilled hands of director Karl Miller and music director Mark Mrozek.
Each character we see is beautifully costumed, perfectly cast and gives a memorable performance as his or her unforgettable character. If this were a cake, Belle (Stephanie Staszak), Gaston (Tim Albrechtson), Lefou (Jim Donaldson) and the Beast/Prince (Keith R. Smith) would comprise it. Lumiere and Cogsworth would be the frosting. The remaining cast would provide sprinkles and other decorations, some to a greater degree.
The first act moves quickly. We learn about Belle, the widowed inventor’s daughter; both father and daughter are considered odd by the townsfolk in their French village. Belle is beautiful, but always has her nose in a book, which gives her escape from mundane village life. The town blowhard and braggart, the handsome Gaston, is convinced no woman would refuse his proposal of marriage, including Belle, whom he aggressively woos in his most arrogant manner. His sidekick, LeFou, only bolsters his selfishness and rudeness.
Belle’s world is turned upside-down when she goes searching for her father (Tom Marks), who has become lost deep in the woods and seeks shelter in the Beast’s mansion. The Beast throws the intruder in a cell, which is where Belle finds him. She unselfishly offers to replace her father in the cell, where she becomes the Beast’s prisoner.
This development brings hope to the servants, who have been turned into a candle holder, clock, woman’s bureau, teapot, teacup, and feather duster. If they can tame the Beast’s unruly manners, perhaps he and Belle could fall in love, which would break the spell and turn them all back into humans.
In Act Two we see lots of the characters at the mansion, and these are an absolute delight. Topping that list are the stellar performances of Richards’ Cogsworth and Welch’s Lumiere. I have always enjoyed Richards’ performances and I missed seeing him in recent productions. His Cogsworth is a scene stealer as he toddles around in a near constant state of consternation, spouting off in a sort of snooty, affected English to the audience’s delight. Welch follows up on an outstanding performance as Cornelius in “Hello, Dolly!” with his Lumiere. Welch moves so well as the tall, stately candelabra swaying and bending like a graceful tree, while capturing a French accent nicely. The two play off each other wonderfully. They also are most comfortable with the objects they’ve been turned into. They move and act so easily in their characterizations that they are a surprise when seen as humans.
Of course, you wouldn’t have a successful “Beauty and the Beast” without a wonderful Beauty and a wonderful Beast, which is the case here. Staszak brings all the right qualities to the lovely Belle, including a lovely singing voice. She shows her wanderlust, her love for her father and her disgust for the loathsome Gaston. But her tenderness is really apparent in the moving finale as she expresses her love for the wounded Beast in a tear-inducing scene.
Smith’s Beast is also well-drawn. I really like all his soft growls and groans as he struggles to become charming. When he is told to be a gentleman by his servants, he repeats the line several times until the final time when he utters “be a gentle man.” It would have been perfect if his voice would have had a deeper timbre more befitting the Beast.
Albrechtson has all the bravado needed for the arrogant Gaston and leaves no doubt as to why he is admired by the villagers for his looks and athleticism as he sings “Gaston” with the ensemble. He is the ultimate chauvinist, dismissing Belle’s reading habit by saying, “Soon she’ll start getting ideas and start thinking.” Donaldson, as always, gives an energetic characterization, this time as LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, mugging expressively to make for another memorable character.
As Madame De La Grande Bouche, the singer turned into a woman’s bureau, Sharon Tyler has the perfect diva presence and a soaring soprano voice to add effortless top notes to ensemble pieces.
There are so many outstanding scenes here, it’s hard to know where to begin. Every one is a gem. “Be Our Guest,” which features the dancing dinnerware and other kitchen items, is a centerpiece, marvelously staged with clever choreography and beautiful singing to Howard Ashman’s and Tim Rice’s clever lyrics.
The dancing is crisp, with all performers at a high level. The mug routine in “Gaston” is a picture of precision. I especially enjoy watching A.J. Pawelski, who appears in several roles with sparkling presence and dance energy.
There are so many, many small moments that are gems, really showcasing the humor and wit in the play. I just love when the servants gather on the stairs as the Beast visits Belle in her room to convince her to have dinner with him. His anger quickly rises and the servants all encourage him, each in his/her own way in words and actions, “to breathe.” A funny bit.
The servants, also including Marcee Doherty-Elst as Mrs. Potts, Agrim Cincotta as Chip and Lydia Rose Eiche as Babette, really gel and are so much fun to watch in “Human Again,” as they mull the possibility of returning to their former lives.
The finale with the entire cast is an incredible, joyous celebration, a perfect way to put a cherry on this exquisite holiday dessert.
If you go
Who: Sunset Playhouse
What: “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove