by Adam Cohen
Pure enchantment. How else can one explain French candelabras flirting with feather dusters, a talking clock and tea pot, or a medical professional on the take? Well, that last one could occur anywhere but the others are ginned up from the minds of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics), Alan Menken (music), and Linda Woolverton(book) in Papermill Playhouse’s resplendent, magical production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. This conflagration of magic is brought to life with spry choreography by Alex Sanchez, musical direction by Michael Borth. Together, they create a marvelous fable of love and longing, with generous helpings of music, dancing, and comedy that are sure to please audience members of all ages.
The show opens with stick figure animation and a narrator telling us of a selfish prince (Tally Sessions) who turns away a hoary, unsightly woman from shelter in a storm. She turns out to be a witch whose curse turns him into a beast and his staff into manifestations of their jobs (thus the talking feather duster and the butler turned candelabra). The only way he can break the curse is to love and be loved by another before the last petal falls from a rose. As if that weren’t enough, the household servants will be permanently transformed into inanimate objects at last petal fall!
Meanwhile, we find a lovely young girl named Belle (Belinda Allyn) in a very provincial French village, who lives with her widowed father and are relative outcasts. Unlike her fellow townspeople, she dreams of visiting faraway places and loves books. While her father Maurice (Joel Blum) is a creative, loving inventor. The village lothario/heartthrob is Gaston (Stephen Mark Lucas), who is both conceited and nasty. He is determined to marry Belle, but she refuses him.
When Maurice gets lost on his way to the fair, Belle follows clues that take her through the forest and she finds him imprisoned at the Prince’s castle. The beast will release her father if Belle agrees to remain in the castle forever.
While the story is a fairy tale, filled with songs from the original Disney cartoon and new material by Rice and Ashman, the top-notch performances and production values are very rich and real. Allyn’s Belle is pretty and sweet, but evinces courage and convictions, a hunger for adventure, and a solid moral compass. Her singing voice is beautiful with a powerful, lovely belt. She beautifully renders “A Change in Me,” the haunting “Is This Home” and leads the inhabitants of the castle in “Something There.”
Lucas has a deep, rich baritone voice and is positively hilarious as the preening, physically strong, lusty Gaston. He emphasizes the narcissism of his character in the titles of two of his songs: “Me” and “Gaston.” And he leads the townspeople in a precise, acrobatic dance that includes rhythmically clanking silver tankards. Sessions is his equal as the Beast. Providing a genuinely funny, awkward performance as he woos Belle and poignant in his acceptance of his probable beastly permanence. His vocal dynamics are particularly striking. And his duets with Allyn are warm and loving. Together, they ground the production with warmly, rich performances.
Speaking of hysterically funny, Gavin Lee as Lumiere, the candelabra, and Kevin Ligon as Cogsworth, the grandfather clock, keep the candle and clock puns going all evening long. Lee is a witty, fabulous, long legged Lumiere and the choreography takes full advantage of his smooth, charming movement. He oozes charisma, even while saddled with unfortunate facial make-up. Stacia Fernandez as Mrs. Potts, the optimistic teakettle is motherly and wise. Her rendition of the title song is tender.
The big production number “Be Our Guest” absolutely stops the show. Choreographer Sanchez and the cast provide acrobatics and can-can in spectacular fashion. For the title song, Belle and the Beast dance a minuet that is appropriately halting and tentative at first and then gets smoother.
Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are amazing and richly appointed. His “human” flatware, napkins, salt and pepper shakers are wonderful and eye popping.
Thankfully, this Belle is no damsel in distress. She’s creative and inventive, warm and caring, curious and smart. With slapstick silliness, lovely songs, challenging and creative choreography, and a sweet story that demonstrates that looking inside for beauty can be very rewarding, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Papermill Playhouse delights and entertains.
Tickets and more information at papermill.org
Photos: Evan Zimmerman or as noted