BWW Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Theatre Tulsa
Producing a Disney show like Beauty and the Beast can be both a blessing and a burden for a local theatre company: on one hand, audiences arrive primed with excitement about what they're going to see, but on the other hand, their expectations can be intimidatingly high. How is possible to truly do justice to the beloved cast of characters with their distinctive physical characteristics, colorful personalities and trademark hodgepodge of accents? Theatre Tulsa handled this challenge with grace, and their production of Beauty and the Beast provided an aspirational example of what great local theatre can be.
Beauty and the Beast, of course, is based on the movie of the same name, in which a book-loving, warm-hearted young woman encounters an enchanted castle that is supervised by a monstrous beast. In true fairytale fashion, she must fall in love with him in order to break the spell and transform him and the others in the castle back into human form. The classic score is by iconic composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, etc.) with lyrics by his long-time collaborators, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Theatre Tulsa's production (directed by Sara Phoenix and with music direction by Jeremy Stevens) at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center has been so successful that it was extended an extra weekend due to popular demand. Their Sunday matinee was packed with eager theatregoers; in fact, a large portion of the under-10 crowd was so enthusiastic that they arrived dressed up in their own tiny Belle costumes. These miniature thespians contributed many "oohs" and "ahhs" throughout the performance and served as a reliable barometer of the show's magical energy.
The show was indeed infused with many moments of childlike whimsy. The costumes (co-designed by Mandy Gross and Lisa Hunter) were some of the most elegant and extravagant you're ever likely to see on a local stage, and the sets (by Richard Ellis) were beautifully elaborate and embellished with exciting bits of theatre magic. These included an enchanted rose with perfectly fluttering petals, flickering torches for Lumiere's candelabra, and an optically-dazing contraption for Chip. The larger set pieces and backdrops were appropriately reminiscent of the movie(s) and lushly detailed without overshooting practical constraints. There were some technical difficulties, especially with the microphones and sound in general, but they were easy to forget in the midst of the vibrant choreography (by Pete Brennan) and literally explosive effects (in the case of some well-timed streamers).
The cast was similarly impressive and demonstrated a formidable collection of local talent. Robbie Bennett as Gaston was a standout with his flawless vocal performance and supplied enough charisma and hamminess to capture his character's arrogance without inappropriately upstaging the show's heroes. Indeed, Margaret Stall as Belle and Drew Rosene as the Beast both provided strong performances and embodied the title pair with intensity and heart. Stall was more powerful in her acting than her singing, but her performance of the song "Home" was a beautiful confluence of both. Rosene's exaggerated growls as the Beast were jarring at first, but his gruffness made it all the more moving when his spoken lines gave way to the gorgeous ballad "If I Can't Love Her." This song, like several others in the play, is not in either of the movies and is a worthwhile reason to see the stage production in and of itself.
Other standouts from the castle gang include charming performances from Travis Guillory as Lumiere, Nicholas Cains as Cogsworth, and Theatre Tulsa mainstay Tabitha Littlefield as Babette. Their chemistry was strong enough that the littlest audience members giggled at all of their jokes, including those that they were too young to understand. Kara Staiger as Mrs. Potts held her own as she was tasked with the monumental job of performing the show's classic titular song, "Beauty and the Beast" - she rose to the occasion beautifully and would have made Angela Lansbury proud. The ensemble supported these leading players with a boisterous vocal energy, and while their performance was not entirely polished, they compensated with little vignettes in which individual performers were able to have their moments in the spotlight.
Theatre Tulsa's Beauty and the Beast is proof that a hardy team of local artists can make Disney magic come to life on stage, and do justice to the beloved source material. The production is an eminent example of local theatre done well, and it brings the familiar "tale as old as time" to life with a Disneyfied heart.