Beauty and the Beast

30594689_10155414411821696_4958624366972633088_nThe CLO’s latest offering of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is an ebullient production, full of color, energy, magic, and fun.

The show celebrates vintage Disney and vintage musicals with a retro-design, starting with a 1930s-style video presentation of the show’s opening “Prologue.” I loved the simple reveal of the Beast at the end of the prologue. This wonderfully old-fashioned aesthetic continued into the whole set, with scenic designer J. Branson relying on manually controlled pallets, decorative legs,  borders, and painted backdrops to create the world of Beauty and the Beast. There were moments the set felt less than ideally opulent, and the dungeon unit was jarringly disconnected, but otherwise, the set was a treat.

Costumes by Tiia Torchia Lager were similar enough to the original Broadway production to satisfy expectations, clever in construction, charming in detail (I particularly liked the floral pattern on Mrs. Potts’ teacup/dress), and rich in texture. Character looks were well put together by Jeff Knaggs’ hair and make-up design, and it all was lit with a stylish eye by lighting designer Paul Miller.

Also in line with the overall nostalgia was sound designer Christopher Evans’ cartoonish sound effects, used to create additional layers of comedy for prat-falls, exploding engines, and Gaston’s signature fist-to-face move, as well as the Beast’s roars, thus recalling Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast and cartoon flavor in general.

Opening night saw several timing issues with the sound cues and some snafus with follow-spot and mike pick-ups. I expect most of these missteps will be corrected as the production settles into its run.

Musical director James Cunningham kept the tempo hopping throughout and expertly navigated the complex exigencies of coordinating between the staging and the music.

as Gaston (center) and cast
Jason Michael Evans as Gaston (center) and cast

The choreography was consistently entertaining, partaking of the nostalgic style with great effect. Dances were simple when required, and rousing when called for. Of particular note was the tankard dance during Act I’s “Gaston.” Another highlight was the much anticipated “Be Our Guest.” This was a full-on musical spectacular combining fantastical designs, rousing singing, and ever-escalating dancing into the show-stopper number everyone wanted.

Stage director Michael Heitzman had some ups and downs with the staging. Small, intimate scenes often saw the actors just standing in a line at the edge of the stage – a use of stage space that was neither interesting nor visually supportive of story development. On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Heitzman’s staging of the large ensemble scenes was expertly done: great stage pictures, great use of the space, great ability to move large groups of people around in interesting and motivated ways.

But, alas, I cannot end on a happy note when it comes to the staging for Beauty and the Beast, since the most egregious staging happened near the very end. The program does not list a fight choreographer, so I don’t know exactly who was responsible for the fights, specifically the final fight between Gaston and the Beast. This fight just didn’t work which ruined the emotional impact of the moment for me.

Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts,  and Lumiere
Michael Di Liberto as Cogsworth, Jennifer Hope as Mrs. Potts, and Benjamin Howes as Lumiere

Kudos to the actors for giving the fight their best try. And kudos to the entire ensemble of Beauty and the Beast for a job well done all around. All of the performances were polished and professional. Voices were universally pleasing, and everyone from soup to salt to rug to wolves threw themselves into the spirit of the show with great effect.

James Snyder’s late Act I “If I Can’t Love Her” was well worth the wait and effectively evoked the pathos of Beast. Jessica Grové’s Belle was consistently charming and vocally lovely. Andrew Kruep’s Lefou exhibited terrific physical comedy skills. Jason Michael Evans’ Gaston vocals were wonderfully warm and expansive. The Beast’s servants: Michael Di Liberto as Cogsworth, Benjamin Howes as Lumiere, Jessica Fontana as Babette, Jennifer Hope Wills as Mrs. Potts, and Kirsten Wyatt as Madame De La Grande Bouche, were the perfect combination of funny and sad, laissez-faire and troubled.

James Snyder as Beast and Jessica Grove as Belle
James Snyder as Beast and Jessica Grove as Belle

I must call attention to the stage managers and crew, just for the last 5 minutes of the show, if nothing else! In those last 5 minutes, there were more rail cues, deck cues, lighting cues, sound cues, and quick costume changes than I can readily wrap my head around. Stuff was flying in and out and sideways, and EVERYONE was transforming, and the ensemble had to be safe to sing and dance while all of this craziness was going on….pant, pant, pant. So GREAT JOB to the whole production and artistic team for pulling that last 5 minutes off without a hitch!  (I have to lay down now.)

Oh, one last thing, the very best moments of the performance for me were when the four-year-old girl sitting in front of me literally bounced off her seat with joy during “Be Our Guest,” and when a little boy cried out in alarm when Gaston was sneaking up behind the Beast to stab him! It was so sweet, and such a delight to see the children so entertained and entranced by the show, that all of my nit-picking becomes unimportant compared with the joy Beauty and the Beast brought to these kids.

The Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 5, 2018. For tickets and more information click here.

Photos by Archie Carpenter