You can’t go wrong with Disney. No matter how high you rate on the curmudgeon scale, when you sit down – albeit against your will – to watch a Disney or Pixar movie, you are going to get swept up in the entertainment and your heart strings are going to be plucked like a harp. I generally end up secretly soaking up a few stray tears on my shirt sleeve after a Disney feature.
When you go to a Disney musical, it’s a safe bet that you’re going to enjoy the show. That is the case with the Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Directed and choreographed by Jon Douglas Rake, the show features some powerful and competent actors in all of its lead roles. The sumptuous sets, costumes and lighting all contribute to the conjuring of an enchanted place in the past where this French fairy tale unfolds. With this show, the TMP will conclude its 24th season of main stage shows.
The story is of Belle (Cherisse Martinelli), who is a bibliophile who wants to leave her provincial village behind in pursuit of romance and adventure. She ends up in the castle of the Beast (Brandon Hell), who was a handsome, but mean-spirited, prince until he snubbed a request for shelter made by a passing enchantress. Because the enchantress had the appearance of a hag, the prince refused any hospitality. The enchantress then revealed her power and beauty and cursed the prince to take the form of a beast until he was able to love another and be loved in return. The household servants (unjustly) also share their master’s curse. They are slowly being transmuted into common household objects: clocks, candlesticks, feather dusters, chests of drawers, rugs, crockery, cutlery and other items. This all makes for some delightful inventions on the part of TMP Costume Designer Jocelyne Fowler.
Martinelli, in the leading role of Belle, is the heart and soul of the show. Her acting and her vocal abilities are both equally formidable. Her voice is a rich blend of creamy satin and shimmering effervescence. She is incandescent in her portrayal of brave Belle, lighting up the stage with her presence. She played the leading role of Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” with which the Tacoma Musical Playhouse finished off last season.
Hell, as the Beast, is able to hold his own with Martinelli. Jimmi Cook, however, as the narcissistic villain Gaston, is perfect for his role. With a strong chin and with his muscular body packed into leather pants and a tight, Mighty Mouse shirt, Cook sizzles with humor and his vocal performance is stellar. Much comic relief is provided by Jake Atwood, who plays Gaston’s side kick (often literally so), Lefou. The frizzy wig and the skirt-like pantaloons somehow make Lefou somewhat less savory than the character actually deserves, however.
Tall and slender Lumiere (Mauro Bozzo) – an animated candle stick – and the sultry Babette (Allyson Jacobs-Lake) – a feather duster – also provide humorous antics throughout the show. Karen Early-Evans, as the animated chest of drawers – named Madame de la Grande Bouche – packs a serious punch with her operatic arias. The rest of the main cast are Diane Bozzo as the teapot Mrs. Potts, Joe Woodland as Maurice (Belle’s father) and Cameron Waters as Monsieur D’Arque. The “Silly Girls,” who idolize Gaston, are played by Emma Deloye, Corissa Deverse and Cassandra Dechant, all of whom can pack a wallop. Child actors Howy Howard, as the teacup, Chip, and Kennedy Arneson, as a cartwheeling carpet, provide more of that Disney humor to the mix.
Cogsworth is played by Chris Serface, the artistic director of Tacoma Little Theatre. The opening of the show is narrated by John Munn, artistic director of the Lakewood Playhouse. The presence of these two makes this show an example of synergistic cooperation among Tacoma’s community theaters.
A large ensemble of actors and singers enliven the crowd scenes and big dance numbers. There are such wonderfully strange things as dances of dishes dressed as Bavarian beerhall wenches and a line of dancing forks and spoons.
The rose is a prominent theme in the story; and has been even in the story’s pre-Disney origin. As a fundraising tool, TMP is selling light-up, blinking roses in the lobby (only $5 a pop). When the Beast gives Belle a rose, audience members light up their roses and wave them in the air. The beguiling effect is one of the emotional high points of the show. The potent songwriting team of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice imbued this work of theatrical art with a number of songs and musical moments that are positively ravishing. The Beast’s “If I Can’t Love Her” is striking. The prominence of Belle in so much of the music means that the audience is treated to a feast of Martinelli’s talent.
As much as I enjoy Disney products, they always feel so formulaic, streamlined and sanitized that I have an urge to go back and examine the source material of whatever it is that Disney has taken into its machinery. In this case, I read an English translation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s mid-18th century story, “La Belle et la Bete,” in which Belle is hindered not by a sexist suitor (Gaston) but by two vain, jealous sisters who end up being turned into statues that flank the castle door. Disney, however, does keep the main shape of the narrative intact and both versions do end up with the happy ending of Belle and the Beast, returned to his true form as the human prince, able to live in love.
TMP’s “Beauty and the Beast” runs through July 29. For tickets, schedules and information, visit tmp.org.