Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Bestest, Most Beautifulest Beast

The Bestest Most Beatifulest Beast
By Tom Wachunas

Woe is me! Oh horror of horrors, dilemma most dire! I’m fresh out of apt descriptors. Snappy, crackling and popping adjectives have settled like mush to the bottom of my once seemingly bottomless word bowl. Vivacious verbosity vanishes quicker than I can type multi-syllabic hyperboles. It’s gotten to the point where it’s practically a foregone conclusion that any musical theater production offered by the Players Guild on its main stage will be a bona fide, jaw-dropping hit. Just when I thought last season’s Peter Pan blockbuster finale was as high as the bar might get, along comes Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

So it gets to be a challenge in finding fresh ways to assign the ebullient praises it deserves. Maybe math is the way. Superb squared, or marvelous musical magic to the power of ten. In any event, Players Guild Artistic Director Josh Erichsen (who designed the set), and Guild Resident Director, Jon Tisevich, knew they had their hands full in committing to deliver this show. To tame a beast indeed. It has become a widely acclaimed, legendary classic in the entertainment world since first appearing as an Academy Award-winning animated film in 1991, then going on to become the sixth-longest running production in Broadway history. Here, the Guild team - also including Technical Director Craig Betz and Resident Costume Designer Susie Smith - has been eminently successful in adapting the show to a necessarily more modest budget and stage while still managing to respect its heroic-yet-intimate character, as well as its epic look.

Erichsen’s set is a perfectly elegant and tastefully uncluttered backdrop to show off the ingenious spectacle of Smith’s costume work. And the performers who fill out those costumes do so with remarkable panache, aided in many scenes by the razor-sharp and witty choreography by Kim Karam. Particularly memorable is the raucous “Gaston” song, set in a tavern where the ensemble cast performs a mesmerizing, intricately percussive hand dance of clashing beer steins.

Tisevich has proven once again his uncanny ability to recognize the right individuals for a role, and then draw out the very best they can deliver as singers and actors. Everyone here brings their ‘A’ game. Andrew Donaldson turns in an appropriately muscular interpretation of the Beast – a convincing picture of loneliness, anger, and impatience gradually changing to tenderness.

In the pivotal role of Gaston, who wants to marry Belle, Barry DeBois is a wonder to behold. It’s almost scary how accurately he’s nailed the narcissistic bully whose megalomania is as hilarious and ludicrous as it is (in the end) tragic. The only factor in preventing his ego from completely flying into the stratosphere is his trusty, fawning companion, Lefou. And as Lefou, Justin Woody pours himself into the character with slapstick abandon, bringing bright new meaning to “sidekick.”

Residents of the Beast’s castle are under a curse that slowly morphs them into objects. John Popa plays Lumiere, a lamp, with dandyish glee. He’s every bit the French womanizer, and his saucy sweetness is an amusing counterpart to his compatriot, Cogsworth, a clock. In that role, Daryl Robinson is both droll and delightfully sour in his frenetic musings. Kathy Snyder plays the teapot, Mrs. Potts, with a palpable warmth (cold tea just won’t do) that carries well into her crisp singing of the title song.

Yet, as famous theme songs go, the dramatic turning point – the lyrical center of this story – is best stated when Belle sings “A Change In Me.” In her role as Belle, Courtney Vignos demonstrates conclusively that she’s truly come of age in real life as a stellar presence in our midst. Her singing and acting here are, in a word, astonishing. In “A Change In Me,” all her character’s vulnerability and fears dissipate in a cathartic moment, an epiphany of self-awareness when she joyously realizes her capacity to really love, to really know another’s heart.

All truly great theatre hinges on the successful combination of inspiring, relevant theatrical literature, and inspired construction of its physical parts – sights, sounds, people, and action. It’s all here. It all adds up. Times ten.

Photo: Courtney Vignos as Belle, and Andrew Donaldson as the Beast.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, through June 14 at the Players Guild Theatre, Canton Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton.

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