Olney Theatre Center’s Mainstage reopened with a roar with their production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” The show—with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton—is directed by Tony-nominated Marcia Milgrom Dodge. This live version of the animated film opened on Broadway in April 1994 and ran for over a dozen years. Because Ashman had passed away, Rice and Menken added several songs to the score from the animated film to fill out the plot and the characters for the stage. The show is being revived on Broadway this coming summer after being delayed by the pandemic.
Olney Theatre Center’s production of ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’ is transformative.
The story is based on a fairy tale written by Gabirelle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. Whether you see the animated movie or stage version, some liberties were taken from the original tale, and characters were added or omitted. But the underlying theme of beauty being skin deep is still there.
What works in Dodge’s concept is that the themes are more in focus because she relies less on the glitzy Disney production and downplays the cuteness of the animated characters from the film. (Although, there are still some cute scenes and characters.) The concept that real love means sacrificing oneself as a parent for your child, or as a child for her parent, or even for your true love, is in stark contrast to the narcissistic love displayed by the villain, Gaston (Michael Burrell).
The other theme of beauty is in the eye of the beholder is brought to the forefront by the non-traditional casting of Belle (Jade Jones) and the Beast (Evan Ruggiero). We are meant to start asking ourselves what really is beautiful, handsome, or sexy. Whatever the initial reactions are to the two main characters, by the end, we all think how gorgeous Belle looks in her royal gown and how handsome and strong the Beast looks by her side as they glide across the stage.
Jones’ voice is as powerful and sweet as any Broadway diva, and she wins us over quickly in the opening number “Belle.” Despite the fact that Jones does not fit the stereotype of a 18th century French provincial girl, we have no problem believing that men find her irresistible. It is the self-centered Gaston who seems ugly and cowardly while the Beast, in Belle’s eyes, is the dashing hero. It is Jones’ ability to create Belle’s inner beauty and kindness that make us believe in this fairy tale.
Ruggiero does not try to hide his disability. (He is a cancer survivor who has lost part of his leg.) Instead of hiding that through costuming, he allows the audience to see his wooden prosthesis. At one point during the battle-scene he is dragged by that leg, creating more horror for the audience who by then are as much in love with the Beast as Belle. Ruggiero tears at our heartstrings when he sings “If I Can’t Love Her.” Both he and Jones have great chemistry in their duet, “Something There.”
Burrell’s Gaston is wonderfully obnoxious and villainous both in his song with Belle, “Me,” or in the ensemble number, “Gaston.”
If you have never seen the stage version and only the animated feature, you will notice that there is a difference in how the inanimate objects are played. There was a decision made before it opened on Broadway that in order for people of normal proportions to play candlesticks, clocks, teapots, etc., the characters would have to be humans turning into inanimate objects rather than anthropomorphizing the household objects. Bobby Smith suavely plays the candlestick, Lumiere and Dylan Arredondo captures the character of the stodgy clock, Cogsworth. Iyona Blake wonderfully portrays the motherly teapot, Mrs. Potts and Miranda Pepin is adorable as Mrs. Pott’s son, Chip—a teacup. Hailey Rebecca Ibberson makes a very sexy feather duster, Babette. Jessica Lauren Ball depicts the plight of the opera singer turned into a bureau with aplomb. The cast and ensemble bring the song, “Be Our Guest” vividly to life. They score again with the number, “Human Again.” Blake does a first-rate rendition of the Oscar-winning song, “Beauty and the Beast.”
Another cast standout is John Sygar as LeFou, the foolish foil to Gaston. Sygar is truly versatile as he sings and dances across the stage. In the reprise of “Gaston,” he and Burrell are totally in sync.
Sasha Olinick is a most sympathetic father of Belle, an inventor a little ahead of his time and devoted to his daughter. He and Jones have an enchanting parent-child number together, “No Matter What.”
The rest of the fine cast includes Connor James Reilly as the Enchantress, who does the role in ballerina toe-shoes; Selena Clyne-Galindo, Quynh-My Luu, and Megan Tatum as Les Filles de la Ville; and Michael Wood as Monsieur D’Arque. Jessica Bennett, Erica Leigh Hansen, Ariel Messeca, Rick Westerkamp, and Tyler White round out the rest of the fine ensemble that helps make this production sparkle.
Dodge’s vision for the show keeps the large musical numbers lively and never obscures the talents of Menken, Ashman, and Rice. With choreography by Josh Walden, the songs that have become classics like “Be Our Guest” are still the mainstays of the show. There is some artful dancing and acrobatics from the opening to the final waltz.
I particularly like the way the dying rose is handled by scenic designer, Narelle Sissons. Sissons uses a large stained-glass window of a rose, and as the plot progresses, the petals keep fading.
In a show where pots, dishes, a candlestick, and a clock play an important role, we have no trouble accepting the actors as objects thanks to costume designer Ivania Stack. Some of them required unique designs such as Mrs. Potts whose right arm must form a spout for almost the entire show without causing the actor physical harm.
Colin K. Bills’ lighting design helps create mood as well as the scene changes. His lighting for the woods is truly chilling. Musical director Walter “Bobby” McCoy’s direction stays true to the score. It Is a pleasure to hear a live orchestra play in a musical again.
Olney Theatre Center’s production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is transformative. With the inclusive cast, it may awaken a new view of casting and create an even more beautiful art form. After all, theatre is often a vehicle for future social change.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute Intermission.
There will be a sensory-friendly performance on Saturday, December 11, 2021, a sign-interpreted performance on Thursday, December 2, and an audio-described performance on November 24. There will be no regular performances on November 25, December 1 and December 25.
Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required at all Olney Theatre performances. Those under 12 who are not yet eligible for the COVID vaccine must be masked and accompanied by a vaccinated adult. At this time, they do not accept proof of a recent negative COVID test in lieu of vaccination. For recent updates on their Covid policy, go to this link.
Olney Theatre Center is running a Pajama Drive for children entering foster care. New pajamas should not be season specific or with messages that may be hurtful to a child in foster care. PJs for older children are sorely needed. They can be delivered prior to any performance or during Box Office hours, Wednesday-Sunday, 12 noon to 6:00 pm until January 2, 2022 and deposited into one of the bins located in the lobby of the 1938 original theatre next to the Box Office.