There 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.