`Beauty' brings magic to the stage

Review: A strong cast and added songs make this a fairy tale all will enjoy.

November 22, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's a lot of magic in the musical "Beauty and the Beast" at the Mechanic Theatre.

There's magic in the form of tricks and illusions -- a fireball thrown across the stage or the chatty, disembodied head of a little boy who has been turned into a teacup. There's magic in Natasha Katz's lighting design, which contributes to the split-second effects of a withered old beggar woman transformed into a beautiful enchantress and a handsome young prince transformed into a monstrous beast.

And there's magic in the eyes of the children in the audience, watching all of this with awe.

But for this critic, the two most magical elements have to do with interpolations in the story. The first was devised by the late Baltimorean Howard Ashman, who served as executive producer and lyricist of Disney's enormously popular 1991 animated feature of "Beauty and the Beast." Ashman was responsible for the imaginative notion of adding a cast of enchanted objects to the dramatis personae.

Not only had the enchantress turned the selfish prince into a beast, she had also cast a spell on his entire household. His housekeeper, Mrs. Potts, became a teapot; his valet, Lumiere, a candelabrum; his butler, Cogsworth, a clock, etc. Ashman's conceit elevated the film from a mere children's fairy tale to a work so inventive, it delighted audiences of all ages.

Of course, the whimsy of having dishes and cutlery dance in an animated movie isn't the easiest thing to achieve on stage. That's where the second magical storytelling element comes in. The stage show's creative team, including librettist Linda Woolverton, director Robert Jess Roth and especially Tony Award-winning costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, decided to depict the servants in the process of evolving into objects.

Visually, this is an extremely clever solution; my 9-year-old theatergoing companion was fascinated when Cogsworth's mustache morphed into the filigreed hands of a clock. But this evolution idea is even more effective dramatically, adding an unmistakable degree of urgency to the plight of the servants, who will be solidified forever if the Beast does not break the spell by falling in love, and being loved in return.

Indeed, the scenes with the servants -- ably led by John Alban Coughlan's Cogsworth, Ron Wisniski's Lumiere and Janet MacEwen's Mrs. Potts -- are the high point of the evening, particularly choreographer Matt West's Busby Berkeley-style production number, "Be Our Guest," and the buoyantly hopeful second-act number, "Human Again," which was dropped from the movie but restored on stage.

"Human Again" is one of eight songs added for the stage show. The other seven combine composer Alan Menken's sprightly melodies with lyrics by Tim Rice, who unobtrusively -- if not always as wittily -- stepped into Ashman's shoes. Among the additions are two solos for the Beast, one of which, the plaintive ballad "If I Can't Love Her," is hauntingly lovely -- even though Grant Norman's singing never quite conveys enough heart.

Norman's portrayal, however, is the only slightly disappointing performance in a production whose other leads are exemplary. Susan Owen's bookish, romantic Belle is a splendidly spunky heroine with a rich soprano voice (if only Roth's direction gave her something more interesting to do than repeatedly belting her big numbers straight out at the audience).

And as Gaston, the preening chauvinist brute who pursues her, Chris Hoch not only has the vocal chops, he has the appropriate Charles Atlas physique as well.

Besides imparting the message that appearances can be deceiving, "Beauty and the Beast" also teaches the more adult lesson that love means learning to let go. Adults may find themselves growing impatient during the musical's cutesy village scenes, replete with Stanley A. Meyer's chokingly cheerful scenery and various slapstick bits in which Gaston treats his sidekick, Lefou, like a punching bag. But fairy tales have a resonance that transcends age and this show is no exception. Who among us hasn't faced fear of the unknown or ached for a little happy ever after?

"Beauty and the Beast" doesn't have the totally re-envisioned artistry of Disney's stage adaptation of "The Lion King." But the road to "The Lion King" was paved by "Beauty and the Beast," which was the most expensive musical in Broadway history when it opened in New York in 1994.

Baltimore is fortunate to have it here at the start of the holiday season when it can work its magic on a whole new generation of theatergoers.

`Beauty and the Beast'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (no performance Nov. 25), 6: 30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Nov. 24, 1 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 5

Tickets: $26.50-$66.50

Call: 410-752-1200

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