By Joanne Engelhardt
An enchanting Belle, a handsome, muscular Gaston and snappy choreography. What could go wrong?
A few things, actually, although the large opening night audience at the Palo Alto Players’ production of Beauty and the Beast probably didn’t notice. In fact, after the big Act 1 production number “Belle” — featuring the entire ensemble clicking metal drink cups — the audience whistled, applauded and stomped their feet so long, you’d have thought it was the finale!
Sam Mills is close to perfection as Belle, who is shunned by the townspeople for being a little strange (she loves to read books!). Her plain blue pinafore makes her look a bit like Judy Garland in….you know: THAT movie.
But she’s got gumption galore, and she does her best to take care of her somewhat eccentric father (Michael Johnson) who loves to fiddle with all things electronic. He’s especially proud of the automobile-type contraption he’s invented which has a habit of breaking down every few feet or so.
In addition to Belle, director Patrick Klein made several fine casting choices here: Frankie Mulcahy as Gaston is one. Mulcahy has played Gaston before, and he’s likely only grown better in the role. Such biceps! Such conceit! Such a devilish grin as he boasts to one and all that he — and only the magnificent he — will sweep Belle off her feet and she’ll melt like honey in his arms. Ha! Belle has absolutely no interest in the self-absorbed Gaston, and the more she resists, the more he’s sure she’s all his.
It’s difficult to go wrong when you’re watching a musical that has an enchanting musical score by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.
… Such biceps! Such conceit!
Lucky for Mulcahy that he has someone as versatile and pliable as John Ramirez-Ortiz who, as Lefou, gets batted around and mightily bruised whenever Gaston needs something to punch.
The hard-working cast of 24 brings choreographer Stacy Reed’s sprightly dance numbers to life, helping recreate the magic of the Broadway musical. Yet there are a few strange choices which, to this reviewer make it slightly less than it could be.
Michael Reed is strong as the Beast. His large structure, gnarled face, ugly horns (thanks to Shilbourne Thill and the Children’s Musical Theatre of San Jose, from whom all the costumes were borrowed), and thoroughly obnoxious disposition make him a Beast to cower before and obey.
But underlying that blustery front is a lonely man who has never known love. Reed’s vocals are clear and filled with longing. So, though he snarls and barks commands to his household servants (who are gradually turning into inanimate objects), he becomes subservient to Belle when she becomes the first person to defy him.
It’s simply delicious to watch him suddenly become a tongue-tied male in love with the dainty Belle.
“…I’m not going to dinner!”
Yet at play’s end, as the Beast finally explodes in a mighty whirl of smoke and lightning, why did director Klein decide to remove Reed from the scene and put in a different actor? It felt wrong because actor Justin Kerekes, as the Prince, looks nothing like Reed.
(To this reviewer, it actually looked as if Kerekes was embarrassed to be standing on stage in Reed’s place.) There’s no logical reason for this switch. Other productions have easily removed the Beast’s facial makeup and hair during the 10 – 15 seconds when he isn’t visible.
Several other supporting characters deserve mention, most especially Arjun Sheth as Lumiere, who was once the Beast’s servant but is now gradually turning into a chandelier. Sheth is so subtle that at one point he goes from a standing position to slithering across the stage like a snake!
Juliet Green is a charming, sweet Mrs. Potts, who, instead of serving tea, is gradually turning into a teapot, and Ben Chau-Chiu is a deservedly disgruntled Cogsworth.
But PAP choose not to have a live orchestra in the pit, so musical conductor Daniel Hughes is there, all alone, giving the actors musical direction.
Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Beauty and the Beast
|Walt Disney’s animated film
|Palo Alto Players
|Thru Nov 20th, 2022
|1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
|$10 – $60
|Max in each category is 5/5
|Aisle Seat Review PICK!