REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Theater League’s national tour of Beauty and the Beast is in town this week, playing six performances at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza through Sunday, and it’s as if Disneyland itself has come to town. I don’t say this as a complimentary observation, because this production behaves pretty much like any stage show you might see at the Magic Kingdom – long on technical excellence, but with a heart of stone and a corporate feel. The show is celebrating its 20th anniversary by bringing back its original director (Rob Roth) and choreographer (Matt West), but the result does not exude the enchantment and magic that previous productions have had, mainly due to what appears to be drastic skimping on the lushness of the show in the way of sets, costumes, and the music itself.
One is made aware of these aspects at the very outset, when the first notes of the orchestra are heard. The lushness of the Howard Ashman/Tim Rice score really requires a full orchestra, but for this production, only ten pieces are utilized. With one violin, one trumpet, and one French horn, there really isn’t enough instrumentation to support the music and the result sounds thin and not very grand. Similarly, cost-cutting is readily evident on the set design, which makes the production look like one of the dark rides in Fantasyland, with skimpy, latticework sets, painted backdrops, and little else. Natasha Katz’s effective lighting design helps mask some of this, but not enough to make up for the underwhelming look of the show. Even the exuberant, celebratory “Be Our Guest” inspires yawns, like a TV advertisement for a time share.
Most disappointing of all are the costumes. Much of the magic of Beauty and the Beast comes from the charm of the enchanted anthropomorphic servants in the Beast’s castle. The characters Lumiere (candelabra), Cogsworth (grandfather clock), Mrs. Potts (teapot), and Madame de la Grande Bouche (a giant wardrobe) are given costumes that only suggest the objects they have been transformed into, and the result is hardly magical at all. When they are transformed back into their human selves at the end of the show, one hardly notices the difference.
As Belle, Jillian Butterfield brings a melodious voice and vivacious spunk to her part – one can liken her to a young Debbie Reynolds. Her glistening solo on “A Change in Me,” a song added to the show in 1998, tailored for Toni Braxton, fares best. As the Beast, Ryan Everett Wood hops around like a gorilla through much of the show, but isn’t as horrific at the outset as he could be. Like Butterfield and the rest of the cast, Wood sings well, but without much heart. His best moment, the Act I closer, “If I Can’t Love Her,” is technically accurate, but lacks the desperation his character needs to make the audience root for him in Act II.
Coming off best is Cameron Bond as Gaston, a cartoon character brought to life, combining equal elements of Li’l Abner, Dudley Do-Right, and Elvis in a deliberately two-dimensional portrayal of a shallow, egocentric, and dim-witted womanizer. Bond flexes, poses, and struts through much of the show, and smoothly utilizes new bits of business created for his character during his preening solo, “Me” and especially, the song “Gaston,” with its crowd-pleasing synchronized beer stein-clinking close order drill, the best-received number in the show. When he’s off-stage, the energy sags until he inserts his slimy self once again.
The biggest disappointment among the major players is Patrick Pevehouse as Lumiere, who only shows a hint of the French accent that makes this character one of the most charming in the ensemble. Samuel Shurtleff (Cogsworth) and Emily Jewell (Mrs. Potts) are OK, but do not do enough with their parts, while Kelly Teal Goyette, as Mme de la Grande Bouche, is bogged down by her totally ill-designed costume; (no wardrobe drawers, just flaps in the general area of her shoulders). Only Melissa Jones, as a bubbly, Bernadette Peters-inspired Babette, the French maid, really shows any sparkle in her portrayal.
At its best, Beauty and the Beast can be a captivating, breathtakingly beautiful show, with sumptuous music, costumes, and sets, befitting the magic of the classic fairy tale. Theater League’s perfunctory, cut-rate production will satisfy the younger set, but needs a magic potion to make it worthy of previous incarnations.