You want a big show like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to be lavish and dazzling but, in crucial ways, the Arts Club’s production is stingy and incomplete. Fortunately, there are also some excellent performances in the mix and the story itself is strong.
In Beauty and the Beast, an arrogant young prince turns away an old woman in need because she’s ugly. An enchantress, she transforms the prince into a beast who must remain in that form until he can truly love and be loved—despite his appearance. As the prince becomes ever more bestial, his servants start turning into objects: Cogsworth, the tightly-wound head of his household, looks more and more like a clock, for instance. Soon, all the help will be inanimate and the prince will be inhuman. But, when a bookish young woman named Belle stumbles into the Beast’s castle, the Beast and the furniture get their hopes up.
To make this kind of big Broadway entertainment work, it should be about as visually restrained as the Ice Capades, but Alison Green’s set is a disappointment. For the Arts Club’s first mounting of Beauty and the Beast in 2005, Green designed a fabulous castle that was so huge it barely fit on the Stanley Theatre’s stage. Set pieces revolved and transformed. It was overwhelming—delightfully so. In this mounting, though, the backdrop and set pieces for Belle’s village are so rudimentary they look like they’ve been borrowed from an underfunded children’s company. The Beast’s castle is insubstantial and empty.
Barbara Clayden’s costumes are more successful. She embellishes the Beast’s blue velvet jacket with dazzling gold details, for instance, and, by adding a gauzy white overskirt, to Belle’s signature hello gown, she plays a delicate variation the theme.
There are more problems, though, especially in Act 1. In “No Matter What”, which is one of the first numbers, Belle and her father Maurice, an eccentric inventor, sing of their love for one another. But Bernard Cuffling, who’s playing Maurice, can’t really sing, which becomes painfully obvious in the song’s closing high notes. It’s not that he massacres them; he just starts whispering.
As a performer, I like Shannon Chan-Kent a lot—I loved her work in both Avenue Q and The Flick—but she is miscast as Belle. Her voice is too small and tight for the part and, although Belle is a no-nonsense gal, Chan-Kent brings such a colloquial sensibility to her portrayal that her Belle sometimes seems more like a mall shopper than a feisty fairytale heroine.
While I’m slagging major elements, I should also say that, in Act 1—remember that caveat—I quickly grew tired of Jonathan Winsby’s Beast in. His growling and prowling felt one-note and over-the-top.
Thank God for Kamyar Pazendeh’s Gaston. Gaston is the stupid, sexist mountain of muscle who is convinced that, because he is the handsomest man in Belle’s village, Belle, who is the prettiest girl, should marry him. Pazendeh has the strongest voice in the cast: it’s deep, rich, and huge. And he brings a surprising ponciness to his portrait, which adds hilarious spin to the character’s hirsute masculinity.
I also very much enjoyed Peter Jorgenson as Lumière, the castle’s maître d’, who is turning into a candlestick. He brings both appropriately syrupy suavity to his characterization and an ironic wink that makes the bad puns irresistibly good-humoured: “Ah, chérie, you cut me to the wick.”
It’s possible that I laughed at every line that came out of Shawn Macdonald’s mouth. He’s played Cogsworth before and he’s got it down to an art. He says, “Oh my goodness, look at the time”, for instance, and then indicates his own face with a gesture so small that it’s both apologetic and hilarious.
And, in the second act, the production finds its heart. That’s largely because the plot picks up. As the Beast starts to seriously court Belle, the tension ratchets up and Winsby has considerably more to play as the Beast. In Act 2, Winsby does a lovely job of exploring the Beast’s vulnerability and awkwardness—even though he has to convey all of that from behind a grotesque mask.
Besides, the core of this tale is unbeatable. There’s a moment in the show that kills me in every production. As the Beast is desperately trying to behave like a gentleman, he struggles to use his soupspoon at dinner. His paws make it difficult. Then Belle puts down her spoon, picks up her bowl with her hands and drinks directly from it. And then I cry. Every time. Because he’s good and she knows it.
DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club Theatre production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, December 13. Continues until January 13.
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