Review: Excellent work on timeless 'Beauty and the Beast'

A beautiful French girl whose name literally means beauty (Belle) and who enjoys reading, an oddity in her small village. A selfish and unkind prince transformed into a horrible, scary creature with horns, fur and fangs (Beast), who secludes himself in his enchanted castle. An egotistical he-man (Gaston) who thinks he deserves the most attractive mate, whether Belle likes him or not.

These three characters are the heart of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. And at a recent Sunday matinee packed with children, parents and a few of us romantics, Erica Stephan (Belle), Brandon Contreras (Beast) and Mark Banik (Gaston) successfully pulled me into the story. This two-act musical was two and a half hours long, including an intermission, but for me, and for the surprisingly quiet audience, it felt like the time flew by from the starting narration to the final bows.

There’s a lot more to say about this production, but first a bit of background:

The original story of “Beauty and the Beast” was written by a French novelist and was published 278 years ago (1740), later being abridged, rewritten and published by two different authors in 1756 and 1889.

In 1991, Disney released an animated, musical movie version of the fairy tale that included an original score by the amazingly talented Alan Menken and new memorable songs such as “Be Our Guest” and the title song. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture – the first full-length animated movie to receive such a nomination. (It won two Oscars: Best Original Score and Best Original Song.)

Three years later, Disney opened a stage version on Broadway. After 46 previews, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was performed a whopping 5,461 times before finally closing more than 13 years later (July 2007). In its initial year, it was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning one for its costume design.

Now in 2018, in the Drury Lane production, director Alan Souza has assembled a multitalented cast, including:

Stephan, who has a gorgeous singing voice and makes us love Belle early on. Stephan doesn’t let her physical beauty take center stage; it’s her character’s full personality that makes her a three-dimensional non-princess heroine. Belle runs the gamut of emotions, after all: from the love seen in her early scenes with her eccentric inventor father, Maurice (Mark David Kaplan); to her ability (aka “spunk”) to resist Gaston’s unwanted advances; to her bravery in being willing to sacrifice her own happiness; to her gradual acceptance, friendship and more with the Beast.

Contreras, who may initially scare smaller children with his “Beast” look thanks to amazing makeup design by Amber Wuttke, but whose character undergoes a remarkable transformation on the inside because of Belle’s influence. When Contreras sings the Act I closing number, “If I Can’t Love Her,” the final lyric (“Let the world be done with me”) is clearly heart-wrenching, thanks to the sincerity in his portrayal.

Banik as the villain you initially laugh at (the song “Gaston” is a full-ensemble hoot) but later detest because of his lack of true love for anyone but himself.

Paul Michael Thomson as Lefou, Gaston’s comedic sidekick, whose acrobatic skills also are put to good use when he has to literally jump through hoops in the “Gaston” production number.

Bri Sudia as Mrs. Potts, one of the enchanted servants in the Beast’s castle. Mrs. Potts is the one who has been turning into a teapot. Sudia, who I’ve previously praised in the Goodman’s 2016 production of “Wonderful Town,” uses her compassion and beautiful voice to sing a sweet version of the title song that Angela Lansbury herself would applaud.

Lighting effects are especially important in a production such as this where we must believe in everything from attacking wolves to characters that magically transform. Kudos to lighting designer Ryan O’Gara. Just don’t expect a lot of bright sunshine-lit scenes; the darkness of the Beast’s castle is only somewhat brightened by Belle’s stay there.

Costumes are beautifully designed for this production. Ryan Park is a costume designer with experience from Broadway to opera houses.

Can Belle help her father, the Beast, and all in the castle? Will the Beast be able to love, and be loved, before it’s too late? And is this show worth bringing the family to? Yes, yes and yes. This may be a “tale as old as time,” but its message of acceptance of those who are different from us is timeless.

• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001.

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