Review: Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Lately, the Paramount Theater’s musicals have been stunning spectaculars, and their current production, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” wholeheartedly lives up to that commitment. It’s a definite holiday blockbuster!

Back for her fourth holiday season, Amber Mak serves as both director and co-choreographer with Todd Rhoades. I have never seen such joyful, flawless, creative magical dancing as occurs in this show, particularly the electrifying “Gaston” and the fully show-stopping “Be Our Guest” (you try tapping and kicking with gigantic utensils!) .

Yes, the gorgeous costumes by Theresa Ham are right out of the 1991 animated Disney film; Jeff Kmiec’s endlessly clever set design on that cavernous stage is a full-force majestic theatrical display of the unfolding fairy tale.

Delighting and further enthralling us from the very first note struck, the 11-piece live orchestra, directed by Kory Danielson, with songs sung by a truly magnificent, if not very busy, ensemble was continually applauded. All of your favorite songs from the film are there and sung with glorious gusto and heart.

We all know the story of the vain, young prince zapped into a ferocious and ugly beast for turning away the disguised enchantress on a bitter winter night. Given a magical red rose, he must learn to love and be loved before the last petal drops or he and his household will remain a beast and fixtures doomed inside his decaying castle. That is until our heroine, Belle, comes searching for her father and a way out of her provincial village. 

Mak’s character transitions are touching (I caught a few tears on faces in the audience) and reinforcing. Belle and the Beast have something in common: They both know what it’s like to be labeled odd and different, and worse, they know what it’s like to be lonely. There’s also the underlying question of what it means to be human; I do love the secondary, subtle message about books and the power of knowledge. But none of these underlying themes hit you in the face.

The three primary leads make their characters fully dimensional. This is champagne casting, folks. Beth Stafford Laird sparkles as the moral compass of the piece; her Belle is dazzling, honest and incandescent, and Laird is an exquisite singer.

Paul-Jordan Jansen as the tortured Beast (already established in my mind as a phenomenon after seeing his Sweeney Todd) is a virtuoso of voice and acting. You’ll like and feel for his beast. Emmett O’Hanlon as the handsome Gaston can flex those muscles and is an incredibly virile baritone; his Gaston is dim-witted, egotistical and dangerous.

Other standouts are Jackson Evans’ suave and romantic Lumiere; his witty camaraderie with George Keating’s stuffy and tightly wound Cogsworth is a delight. They both are charmers. Succeeding in overcoming memories of Angela Lansbury is Jennie Sophia as Mrs. Potts, who is both engaging and engrossing as the ever-hopeful maternal teapot.

And Becca McCoy is a theatrical former opera diva dresser, Madame de la Grande Bouche (this is a French fairy tale after all). Other strong portrayals are Nick Druzbanski’s Le Fou, the blustery comic-relief servant to Gaston; Ron E. Rains’ sweetly befuddled genius father, Maurice, and the very saucy and seductive Katherine Lee Bourne as Babette, the feather duster. 

With book by Linda Woolverton, memorable music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is based on the classic French fairy tale by Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

It ran on Broadway for 13 years to mixed reviews and 5,461 performances; it was nominated for nine Tony awards. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” has played in more than 13 countries and 115 cities to date, and there’s a very strong rumor that it’s poised for a New York stage comeback in the very near future. And why not? “Beauty and the Beast,” especially this brilliant Paramount production, is a marvelous, uplifting and enchanting story. Be their guest. 

• Regina Belt-Daniels has loved acting since her starring role as Mother Goose in the first grade. She continues to do what she loves best: act, direct, travel, teach, write theater reviews and serve enthusiastically on theater boards throughout northern Illinois. 

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