Monday, September 25, 2017

We've Been Served

 We’ve Been Served

By Tom Wachunas

“…Ever just the same /Ever a surprise/Ever as before/
Ever just as sure…”  - lyrics from Beauty and the Beast

    With its current production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, directed by Jonathan Tisevich, the Players Guild Theatre offers yet another pièce de résistance of theatrical art. In keeping with the ebullient spirit of one of its signature songs, “Be Our Guest,” think of this show as a lovingly prepared, extravagant banquet served piping hot by an exuberant, impassioned cast.

   As the heroine, Belle - whose dreams of a better world are inspired by her passion for books - Rachel Smith is a thoroughly charming newcomer to the stage. Yet in both her acting and singing, she’s more than a diamond-in-the- rough. For all of her youthfulness, she’s a remarkably complete performer - a refined, multi-faceted jewel as it were - gracefully exhibiting all the subtle variations of light and darkness built into this classic tale of redemptive love. The emotive power in the gentle vibrato of her singing voice is a marvelous instrument in itself, effectively finessing her character’s innocence, feisty independence, and vulnerability.

   Early in the story, Belle’s father, Maurice, an affectionate and sweetly peculiar man played by Ralph Cooley, gets lost in the woods and imprisoned in the castle of the erstwhile Prince who was at the time cursed to be a Beast forever unless he can learn to love and be lovable. Belle offers herself in exchange for her father’s release. Her disarming, authentic tenderness and love will eventually transform her jailer’s hardened heart. 

   As the Beast, Sean Fleming is certainly a fearsome physical entity, but he’s also a soaring spiritual and emotional presence, embodying real pathos. Smitten and empowered by Belle’s unrestrained selflessness, he’s fascinating to watch as he slowly sheds his toxic bitterness to reclaim his humanity.

   Mason Stewart gives us a muscular portrayal of the dashing and dastardly Gaston. Authoritative and comical, Gaston is nevertheless a self-absorbed, feckless, and cruel trophy hunter, obsessed with marrying Belle who in turn fiercely resists his advances. Undeterred, he struts about town with  exaggerated machismo, much to the delight of three ‘silly girls’ – played with ditzy abandon by Kaylah Lehman, Aaliyah Kinnard, and Alexis Wilson - who vie for his affections while swooning over his every word. Anthony Woods-Mitchell is similarly giddy in his role of the fawning Lefou, Gaston’s unreasonably loyal punching bag. 

   Meanwhile in the castle, even the domestic staff has been infected by the Beast’s plight. They’re progressively turning into inanimate objects. With their visceral French accents and incessant flirting, Justin Woody as the lascivious candlestick, Lumiere, and Desiree Hargrave as the frenetic feather duster, Babette, are hilarious. Jacob Sustersic is delightfully engaging as a clock named Cogsworth, the jittery sentinel trying to maintain order and proper castle etiquette amidst titillating operatic outbursts from Tehilah Caviness, who plays a fancy wardrobe. And Julie Connair, as Mrs. Potts the teapot, articulates a wholly soothing energy of motherly hope, comforting Chip, her teacup son, played by Noah Tisevich, equally endearing as he voices his desire to be a real boy again.

      Setting the well-appointed table for this aesthetic feast with inventive magical effects and visuals are scenic designer Joshua Erichsen with master carpenter Micah Harvey, lighting and sound designer Scott Sutton, and costumer Stephen Ostertag.  The cast performs Michael Lawrence Akers’ robust choreography with infectious panache, especially in one of the evening’s most raucous numbers, “Gaston,” featuring a wildly complex rhythmic flurry of clinking beer mugs. And the live orchestra directed by Steve Parsons brings exhilarating aural depth to the proceedings.

   I think one verse in “Be Our Guest” still resonates as best illustrating the inspired motivation behind this Players Guild production: “Life is so unnerving / For a servant who’s not serving / He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon…”  In navigating the often ambiguous boundaries between technically excellent entertainment, so abundantly evident here, and truly impactful art, this cast and crew have literally taken that lyrical sentiment to heart and effectively become the collective, compelling soul of a servant. 

   And so it is that in the end, I had the wondrously uncanny sensation of being embraced and otherwise artfully…loved.

   Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 8 – Shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. / Tickets $29 adults, $26 seniors, $22 for 17 and younger / Order at or call 330.453.7617

   PLAYERS GUILD PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: 1. Rachel Smith as Belle / 2. Ralph Cooley as Maurice, Rachel Smith / 3. Sean Fleming as the Beast, Rachel Smith / 4.  Jacob Sustersic (left) as Cogsworth, Justin Woody as Lumiere / 5. Julie Connair as Mrs. Potts

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