Beauty and the Beast: still a beauty

The Arts Club is presenting Beauty and the Beast at the Stanley Theatre.

Come on. Don’t try to tell me you don’t want to be at least one of the characters in this scenario. (Michelle Bardach as Belle and Jonathan Winsby as the Beast. Photo by David Cooper)

As I was watching the Arts Club’s production of Beauty and the Beast for approximately the ten thousandth time, I was struck by three things: actors’ jobs are weird; no matter how many times I see this show, it completely undoes me; and this year’s version is particularly charming.

Usually, I attend opening nights, which are such high-strung affairs that you forget the show won’t be quite so charged every night. But, sitting with a mid-week crowd for Beauty and the Beast, I had time to notice just how hard the performers were working at pretending, at manufacturing joy in themselves and others. I used to be an actor, but it’s been a long time and I’d forgotten.

Because I’m familiar with both the story and this production—the Arts Club has been mounting this show on and off since 2005—it took a while for the magic to kick in this year but, when the beastly Beast first tired to convince Belle, the beauty, to dine with him, despite his horns and fangs, I got hooked once again. And, by the time the two of them were falling in love, I was a puddle. After all, who doesn’t feel beastly to some extent—unlovable physically, emotionally or both?

Jonathan Winsby, who’s played the role before, makes a lithe, leonine Beast. He’s touching, too, and funny in his animal-like incomprehension of what behaviour is expected of him. And Winsby can sing your heart right out of your chest. God knows I wandered around the lobby looking for mine after his Act 1 closer “If I Can’t Love Her”.

But the performance that makes the big difference in this year’s Beauty and the Beast is Michelle Bardach’s Belle. (This is the first time that Bardach has played the part.) Is it too much of a cliché to say that her voice is like sunshine? Probably, but it is that warm and uplifting, dang it. And Bardach hits the character’s sweet spot: she allows Belle to be confident and assertive without ever turning her sour.

Of the other returning performers, I particularly enjoyed Shawn Macdonald as Cogsworth, the Beast’s “tightly-wound” head servant, who is under a spell and turning into an object just like everybody else in the castle. Cogsworth is gradually becoming a clock.

And Kamyar Pazendeh is repeating his hilarious turn as Gaston, Belle’s narcissistic, sexist, would-be husband. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pazendeh is so generously muscled that he’s the boy equivalent of stacked and he works his size to full comic effect, posing endlessly, and juxtaposing his mass with downright poncey movement.

This time out, director Bill Millerd has cast a woman, Ali Watson, as Gaston’s sidekick LeFou, a role that’s usually played by a guy, and the result is conceptually muddy. Barbara Clayden still costumes this LeFou as a man, but I’m pretty sure I heard another character refer to LeFou as “she”. And it makes no sense for the ultra-conservative, womanizing Gaston to have a female sidekick. Within all of that, Watson does fine as LeFou, but the role isn’t built for wild success: Gaston will inevitably outshine him.

I preferred the set that Alison Green designed for the original Arts Club mounting. It was hugely bulky and scene changes were probably a nightmare, but that set was also magical and it gave a sense of place, which Green’s current, flimsier—albeit more efficient—design doesn’t really do.

But we’re primarily there for the story, after all, and the songs. The story, as I mentioned is a killer. And the songs are more fun than a parade. I’m a particular fan of “Gaston”, that character’s ode to masculine self-love, which includes the immortal line, “I use antlers in all of my decorating.”

On the first opening night 13 years ago, somebody made the mistake of ordering a chocolate fountain for the reception. So all sorts of little kids got completely wired on liquid chocolate—and their very best clothes got thoroughly smeared with it. It was like a bacchanal. If Santa had entered the room, they would have torn him limb from limb. It was fantastic.

Nothing like that happened this past Tuesday, but it was still a very good show.

BEAUTY AND THE BEASTMusic by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Tuesday, December 11.  Continues until January 6.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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