Beauty and the Beast

22256807_10154913721746016_2095757868663835950_oA tale that has enchanted old and young alike opened at the Byham Theater to the tones of a live orchestra tuning. A slightly blurry projection of the traditional Disney’s Beauty and the Beast logo graced the promising black curtains and the myriads of little girls matching in their Nutcracker and Swan Lake best, complete with faux fur stoles, left no doubt in an attendee’s mind that magic was about to happen on stage.  

Our journey with Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory’s production begins with the rich voice of the Narrator ushering us through the follies of the Young Prince’s youth, Carson Gregg, as lighting and translucent screens mostly hide and reveal the transformation of the Young Prince into the Beast before we transition to a French open air market of generically post-mediaeval time period. The costumes and choreography of the day-to-day hustle and bustle of rural townspeople flowed together and presented a convincing portrayal of natural human interaction, though some of the non-main characters’ lines and musical phrases were drowned out by the orchestra due to muffled speakers and uneven sound mixing.

Jordyn Walker as Belle was a breath of fresh air as she danced onto stage with natural grace. An obvious wig and too much eye makeup were quickly overshadowed by the ease with which she interacted with her fellow cast members and the pure quality of her beautiful voice. The chemistry between Belle and Brecken Farrell as Gaston made their scenes together utterly believable and Gaston’s inappropriate advances all the more skin crawling. Throughout the production Gaston stole the show with his over the top performance that was simultaneously convincing and absolutely absurd. Gaston was often accompanied by a disappointing LeFou, Amarianna Busa, whose wonderful physicality was marred by songs that should have been set to a key more compatible to her range

A lovingly bumbling Maurice, Jeramie Welch, opens the curtain to the enchanted castle after a brush with Wolves that was a convincing dance scene not too scary for the younger eyes in the crowd. A multi-tiered interior castle scene gave characters the opportunity to play out encounters with diverse blocking, leading each scene to be unique and visually intriguing. On the far sides of the sets, however, the painting details evoking stone work was not continued with as much care and the visible wood sheets covering the set’s skeleton put a just little ding in the fantasy illusion’s armor.

Though the set may not have been as polished, a delightfully festooned Lumiere, Nick Staso, and Cogsworth, Ben Godley-Fisher, married their French and British accents to perform classically witty repartee. And while the chemistry between Lumiere and Cogsworth was not mirrored by the relationship between Belle and the Beast, Matty Thornton, Belle interacted with the characters of the castle with absolute conviction. But after a compelling scene where Belle stands up to the Beast on behalf of her father, the progression of Belle and the Beast’s relationship seemed forced and lacked the spark that warms actual relationships. And while the Beast had a devilishly clever mask, which had a working jaw that made it look like he was actually speaking, his plain costume looked like it had just been whipped up from muslin. Though of course a Beast would not care about his appearance, any clothing remaining from the Beast’s human days would have been at least as rich as the maître’d Lumiere’s.

But when Belle, and the audience, was asked to Be Our Guest, the costumes of the various household implements were positively delightful and Mrs. Potts, Mia Schmidtetter, and the Wardrobe, Torrance Bejuszik, stole the show with their powerhouse vocals. The entire Be Our Guest sequence was spectacular with a rich array of household objects in delightful costumes – a particular favorite was a cheese grater – and well-executed dance moves utilizing the entirety of the set, and it was obvious the directors and choreographers had taken great care to entertain their audience as much as the cutlery were entertaining Belle. The only drawback in the ensemble’s costuming were the plates who were clothed in short, pink, lingerie-esque baby dolls. Putting minors in undergarment-showing costumes for a show where most of the attendees are young girls seems to go directly against the message of brains and bravery over beauty that Belle embodies and tries to turn young girls into sexualized inanimate objects.

Once Mrs. Potts began to sing Tale as Old as Time, time itself seemed to stand still because of her flawless intonation and musical expression. Mrs. Potts serenaded Belle and the Beast as they twirled before a background of actually twinkling stars and realized they were in love when the Beast learned to let go of his last true hope for physical humanity. Belle’s gown was a gorgeous interpretation of the classic golden gown and the Beast’s new-found finery was exquisite as obvious care was given to this beloved scene from director to costumer to actors.

As a whole, Beauty and the Beast was an entertaining, high-school level production that left the audience humming and skipping a little as they wound out of the theater into the chilled October air. Beauty and the Beast at the Byham Theater has unfortunately closed, but to find out more about PMT’s season, click here. 

Beauty and the Beast

main_fit_300There is a certain uncanny valley effect to the popular theatrical adaptation. The more well-oiled productions of a play there are, the less vital the story will feel. This is not to say that a heavily retold story loses its significance; the more you see, or hear, or read, or watch something, you become better at understanding its roots. But the Perfectly Told Play – the play where every element of production and performance is measured to the smallest decimal and executed with scientific specificity – this is a space where a story can lose its meaning. What new can be discovered in a place perfectly excavated?

The robotic effect of artistic perfection puts community theater in a neat spot to be, for lack of a better phrase, the fun kind of theater, where everyone is there because they want to be, where every set piece was carved out anywhere other than an office. It’s a handwoven blanket beside a factory-sealed comforter.

McKeesport Little Theater’s adaptation (of Disney’s adaptation) of Beauty and the Beast is a production where I was reminded of why it is I have so much more fun in smaller spaces. Produced by Heather Atkinson and directed by Robert Hockenberry, this is a retelling that surely needs no introduction (but if anyone has somehow made it to this text without at any point encountering the basic plot outline of Beauty and the Beast, please send a word my way, I’d love to hear the ins and outs of cave dwelling).

We have our leads: the beast (Justin Addicott), this time hunched, growling, and perpetually furious, and Belle (Kristina Dalbo), this time more a recognizable human being than the yellow-clad mcguffin for Beast she is sometimes reduced to. The play being what it is, you’d expect the focus to be largely on the two characters’ romance, but I felt a certain shift in storytelling happen here, a redirection towards each characters’ inner motivations as opposed to the results of their motivations. I don’t know if I could effectively put my finger on it, but I found myself far more aware of Belle’s deep desire to escape village life than I did her ability to look past Beast’s…uh, beastliness.

During an interview I conducted interview with the Little Theater’s president Linda Baker, she told me a goal of Hockenberry’s was to focus on the human elements of the outlandish cast. Nowhere is this approach more evident than in the production’s portrayal of the larger cast. We always get the sense in the Disney film that the Beast’s sycophantic servants, now cursed as furniture, are literally and metaphorically window dressing, and that Gaston (here played by Ray Cygrymus, who relishes every moment of the role) is some necessary source of tension, but his constant demand for validation seemed as relevant to the plot to me as Beast’s whole thing. This is not to say that Hockenberry’s direction has unraveled some previously unsolved puzzle; it’s more that he’s perhaps leveled the playing field for the characters.

In fact, the show is at its best when its many characters are afforded as much scene to chew on as humanly possible. While some members in the cast find more comfort in their role than others, the play is at its best when its cast is huge and likable. Jezebel Zbony-DelPercio’s Lumiere, for instance, is unquestionably fun to watch. She adopts a Chaplin-type verve to her candlesticked paramour that makes her performance satisfyingly visual. Cygrymus’ straight-faced machismo bolsters any scene he’s featured in. Kaitlyn Majewski’s adorably enthusiastic Chip is surely the best Chip ever.

More than anything, it’s the spirit and energy that is the Little Theater’s greatest asset. At least in my experience, this was not a production without a few unwelcome technical surprises. Curtains were ripped. One character found themselves lodged in a door for what felt like a solid minute, lightly clunking against the door frame while other actors strained to find a through line back to the plot.

It’s a live show, folks: things happen. How these things happen is what’s more important. When a production is as committed to earnest, positive energy and communal celebration as Beauty and the Beast, it’s hard not to appreciate the energy these moments can bring in. There is a scene fairly deep in the play in which Cogsworth, with the help of Lumiere, discovers he’s grown a key in his back, indicating he’s lost that much more of his human form to his curse. The characters try desperately to remove the key, but how can they? This is their form now. It will never chance. And it’s tragic – that is, until his pendulum fell off of his body with a soft thud. After a beat, Lumiere responded “hey, at least we got one part!”

It’s just fun. To be clear, the show is no technical disaster, and in fact occasionally exceeded at production values. Rarely is lighting given its due after a show, but here it’s notable, moving quickly in and out of spotlight, creating subtle hints of melancholy and celebration when it needs to.

The choreography, too, is a step above the usual. In fact, I can’t think of a better summation of the play than the performance of “Gaston” in the tavern. The set is busy with people, the choreography is messily intricate, with dancers simultaneously leaping between one another whilst clinking these big metal mugs. In later songs, characters enter and leave through isles mid performance. It is a space filled with energy.

Beauty and the Beast is a warm-blooded, heartwarming thing. And it’s the kind of thing you only get to see in places like this. Hockenberry has kept the iconography of the Disney film, but has also snuck a little deeper into the original story than the advertising has let on. In some ways that escape from the Disney canon, I think, further enables the show to be something more than it is on the surface. It’s free to be its own kind of goofy.

It’s hard to deny the charms of a show that is, for all intents and purposes, the theatrical equivalent of a warm hug – or maybe, a hand knit blanket.

Special thanks to the McKeesport Little Theater for complimentary press tickets. Beauty and the Beast runs weekends through September 25th. For tickets or more information, click here.

Community, Celebration, and Risk Taking: McKeesport Little Theater’s Fall Season

The culture of a theater is dictated by hundreds of elements, one of the most 558587_368499533194803_1321376975_nsignificant of which is its size. Any theater worth its merit has a soul, a family, a crew, and, not insignificantly, usually a ghost. The size of a theater plays a pretty huge role in this equation; each production, each concession stand, each stage plays a greater role in establishing the spiritual nature of a place.

Perhaps no Pittsburgh theater is more actively aware of this little/big economy than the McKeesport Little Theater. I recently had the chance to sit down with MLT’s President, Linda Baker, to discuss their upcoming season, as well as the theater itself.

More than anything, MLT cares about its people: “The audience has a say,” Baker told me. “We are sensitive to what they want to see. At the same vein, we try catering towards the audiences of the future.” This concern for audience satisfaction extends from production decisions, to its community-oriented MLT Juniors Program, to travel concerns – Baker even takes care to ensure the steep road leading to the theater is clear and salted during winter productions.

The first of four main productions, MLT’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, a perennial crowd pleaser, is in some ways evidence of their approach to main_fit_300bridging the gap between friendliness and riskiness. Directed by Robert Hockenberry, a primary goal of the production is focus on the humanity of the show’s colorful cast, and by extension what humanity means exactly to each of us.

The relationship between the play’s titular lead characters promises to reexamine the contemporary fairy tale in a similar way, thanks to the casting of real-life couple Justin and Kristi Delboe.

Additionally, the production will feature “adults playing adults,” and will avoid trivializing its supporting cast. “[Robert Hockenberry] didn’t want to portray [the characters] as a cartoon. He worked with the cast to find the humanity in each object.” Audiences can see the play for themselves September 9th-25th.

fxgjgxfjfUp next is 12 Angry Men, directed by Laura Oxenreiter. Long considered one of the greatest examples of dialogue-driven storytelling, the Reginald Rose-penned classic is about a 19 year old man standing trial for the brutal murder of his father. Although it initially appears to be an open and shut case, one skeptical juror believes the young man to be innocent. Through an intense exchange of ideas, evidence, and biases, the 12 jurors debate their way towards a complicated, uncertain interpretation of truth. 12 Angry Men will be performed from November 4th-20th. Auditions for the show will be open September 18th-19th.

Polish Joke, a play by David Ives, is something of a wild card in MLT’s fall season. Directed by David Hoffman, Polish Joke follows Jasiu, a Polish-American exploring his ethnic identity in a complex culture. Acutely aware of the show’s (relative) obscurity, Baker feels the play is an opportunity to expose MLT’s audience to something fresh, and an example of the necessity of risk. “If [we’re] not willing to take a little risk, we wouldn’t be able to put on something like Polish Joke. You have to take risks.”

“I don’t think a lot of people have heard about it,” Baker continued. “I want [our audience] to have a new experience.” The play promises to have a quirky sense of humor, and is intended to be a breath of fresh air. Polish Joke will be performed from March 10th to March 26th.

This season’s final show will be Anything Goes. Directed by MLT veteran Dorothy Follows, the light-hearted classic tells the story of the inhabitants of 71the ocean liner S. S. American. Aided by nightclub singer Reno Sweeny and Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin, Billy Crocker hopes to win the heart of Hope Harcourt, who is soon to be wed to the wealthy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. With a show filled to the brim with elaborate disguises and good old fashioned hijinks, Baker looks to end this year’s season “on a big note.”

Lastly, MLT will continue its Juniors Program, which empowers young locals to try their hand at theater. When I asked her what impact the program can have on the community, Baker told me about her own children’s personal experiences.

“As a parent, I think the impact was that it gave my children the opportunity to learn about theater in a safe environment with kids that are like-minded. It made my [son] happy to have the skills to perform and learn.”

The program, primarily filled with young, aspiring actors, gives kids the chance to rehearse and put on a live show – this year, the Juniors Program will be putting on Madagascar: The Musical. Although this year’s show is still very much in the making, Baker and her team are already “having fun thinking about costuming. Do you want them to be cartoony, or human with the suggestion of an animal?”

“Do I think [MLT’s Junior Porgram] impacted how [my son] sees the world? I think it impacted his outlook. He found a niche that leads to a career,” said Baker. “Kids are here to be creative. Seeing them come out of themselves doing something different…it’s fun!”

Kids looking to get involved in the MLT Juniors Production can find more about the program at the theater’s website. Madagascar: The Musical will be performed this January.

Check out the rest of our 2016 Fall Preview here! Follow along with our autumn adventures with the hashtag #FallwithPITR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!