Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2018-2019 season finale is Disney’s blockbuster “Beauty and the Beast,” with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton. What more fitting close to a fabulous season than a story of the transformation of two people and an entire village by the power of love.
From the opening moments with the swirling overture, the excitement of a live orchestra, and the beauty of shadow puppets on the scrim on the stage, to the larger than life characterizations of the first rate cast, it was truly refreshing to be surrounded by an audience of all ages. Too often, it is easy to feel tall and young when attending theatre. Shows like “Beauty and the Beast,” tale as old as time with song as old as rhyme, prove that imaginative retellings of classic stories still have lessons to teach, when we are all willing to learn.
Belle (Belinda Allyn) always has her nose in a book, making her most peculiar among the other lasses of her village. This is the beginning of STEM initiatives for a lot of little girls, who were wearing their Belle dresses to the show. They will nurture their love of books, never realizing the quest for knowledge comes from this point–pure genius on the part of playwright Woolverton. Ashman and Rice’s lyrics and Menken’s music weave their spell, while imparting the messages that might does not always make right, that uniqueness should be cherished, and that each person has a part to play, so judging a book by its cover does not always reveal what’s within.
Kelly James Tighe’s scenic design combine with Leon Dobkowski’s costumes and Charlie Morrison’s lighting design in beautifully limned fantasy scenes and people. Maurice, Belle’s father, is clothed in eccentricity, as is his glorious contraption. Stephen Mark Lukas’ Gaston is larger than life and garbed in form fitting, figure enhancing clothes, showing his copious attributes. No wonder the village belle’s swoon, even as our Belle does not. Kevin Curtis’ Lefou is a louche chameleon, who gives full vent to his weather vane range of emotion and self-interest, 180 to 360 to 720, in the blink of an eye.
When we meet the Beast (Tally Sessions), he is truly immersed in the part. Growling vocals and rolling, shambling gait show how much less human he is becoming daily, yet his intellect is strong and we see and hear the change in him, as Belle comes to change his life. His stalwart companions, the luminous Lumière (Gavin Lee) and the dour Cogsworth (Kevin Ligon) are the perfect foils for one another. We see them as fully rounded characters–Cogsworth in his concern for the Master, his love of the house and his almost holy respect for order. Lumière has quite the flirtation with Babette (Jenelle Chu) and whether the other flirtations he alludes to are actual, or figments of his imagination, the sparks fly between these two frequently! Donna English’s Madame de la Grande Bouche is grand in every way, including the little snippet quotes of operas, like a bit of the flourish from Mozart’s Queen of the Night’s aria from “The Magic Flute.” Mrs. Potts (Stacia Fernandez) and Chip (Gianni David Faruolo, in the performance I saw) had such chemistry with one another and there are neat bits of stagecraft abounding in the production, including the illusion of “I-ain’t-got-no-body” Chip! Keep a careful eye also on the Beast at the denouement, just saying.
It would be difficult to view this show without the lens of #MeToo, especially when watching how Gaston treats all women, and his pursuit and objectification of Belle. Again, Woolverton’s subtle and unsubtle messages about how people should treat one another are very visible to the adults in the room. Brava and Bravo, Team!
One of the chief joys of seeing a show like this at a venue like Paper Mill is being surrounded by children and sometimes world-weary, seen-it-all theatre goers, who respond to the strumming of the heart strings in this show. Behind us, a little girl whispered “No, Belle! Don’t go in there! Don’t go!” when Belle heads off for the West Wing—another subtle message? Stay away from the West Wing? Hmmmmm—yet Belle forges ahead. Later, after the thrillingly angsty fight between Gaston and Beast, a little boy in the back of the auditorium was nearly inconsolable. His parents could be heard telling him “keep watching, it will all be okay…” and the orchestration of drama and laughter is spot-on perfection.
See “Beauty and the Beast” today. It runs through July 3 and, whenever you go, it’s an amazing show. Spoiler alert–my favorite numbers were “Be My Guest” and “The Battle,” for the gifted dancers, and derring-do and my heart danced before me and my winged feet all the way home. Banish cynicism and embrace love! Ultimately, we are all capable of transformation, and being the better part of ourselves. Karma claims Gaston and love reigns supreme.
Theatre tickets make awesome Father’s Day gifts so get to www.papermill.org
while the best seat selection is still available!