Walt Disney’s Beauty And The Beast made movie history in 1992 when it became the first full-length animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Major musical sequences like “Belle,” “Gaston,” and “Be Our Guest” felt so much like Broadway production numbers that its 1994 transfer to The Great White Way made perfect sense, leading to nine Tony nominations, three National Tours, English and foreign language productions the world round, and regional productions like the one staged by Cabrillo Music Theater in 2007. February of this year marked the start of Beauty And The Beast’s Fourth National Tour, a sensational production now making a one-week stop at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Though the NETworks presentation is Beauty And The Beast’s first non-Equity tour (and no longer produced by Disney Theatrical Productions), there’s not a weak link in the show’s thirty-member cast. Its original creators have streamlined the original production, cutting a couple non-essential songs (“No Matter What” and “Maison Des Lunes”) and an Act Two battle sequence, making what had seemed a somewhat overlong show (especially one for children) zip by quite quickly indeed.

Since there’s probably not an audience member under the age of thirty who didn’t see the animated classic as a child, and since anyone over thirty has probably seen it as a teenager or adult, there’s no need to synopsize. Those who have not yet experienced Beauty And The Beast live on stage may wonder how its creative team managed to recreate with live actors characters like Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts, servants transformed by an enchantress’s spell into items of furniture, especially in production numbers like “Be Our Guest” and “Human Again.” Suffice it to say that Beauty And The Beast’s book writer Linda Woolverton, director Rob Roth, and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward came up with ingenious solutions likely to surprise those who may have thought it couldn’t be done.

The 84-minute film’s original songs (music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman) have been supplemented by a number of additions (lyrics by Tim Rice), most particularly Belle’s “Home,” Gaston’s “Me,” and Beast’s powerful Act One closer “If I Can’t Love Her,” which serve to flesh out and enrich Woolverton’s characters.

Unlike many non-Equity tours (the most recent Hairspray tour for example), this new National Tour has the distinct advantage of having been helmed by its Tony-nominated original Broadway director and original choreographer Matt West; that is to say you won’t find the words “recreated by” anywhere in the show’s credits.

Also, though its stars may not yet have Broadway credits on their résumés, all have worked extensively in regional theater and national tours. In fact, it’s hard to imagine better performances than those being given by Justin Glaser (Beast), Liz Shivener (Belle), Nathaniel Hackmann (Gaston), Keith Kirkwood (Cogsworth), Merritt David Janes (Lumiere), Sabina Petra (Mrs. Potts), Christopher Spencer (Maurice), Erin Coors (Babette), Michael Fatica (Lefou), Dakota Ruiz (alternating with Sheffield Hocker as Chip), and Jen Bechter (Madame de la Grande Bouche).

Glazer’s Beast combines an imposing physical presence with just enough sweetness and vulnerability to turn a young Beauty’s heart, and a gorgeous baritone to match. Shivener is spunky perfection as Belle, singing Menken’s melodies in a glorious soprano. As the show’s two comedic duos, Kirkwood & Janes and Hackman & Fatica steal scenes right and left, taking the original animated characters as models, then making their roles very much their own. The same can be said for Petra’s warm and wonderful Mrs. Potts, Coors’ saucy Babette, Ruiz’s cute Chip, and Bechter’s bigger-than-life Madame. Finally, it’s a treat to see Santa Ana native Spencer performing on his home turf with a droll take on the dotty Maurice.

Supporting these principal players is an all-around terrific, inexhaustibly talented song-and-dance ensemble: Tommy Bracco, Jeff Brooks, Steven Czarnecki, Jennifer Elise Davis, Robyn DeGuzman, Anthony Fett, Gabriela Gamache, Brandon Haagenson, Julia Louise Hosack, Benjamin Lynch, Clifford Lyons, Sarah Rolleston, Heather Russell, Sarah Claire Smith, Nate Suggs, and Allyson Tolbert. Chandon Jones and Michael Whitney are swings.

The latest National Tour also sports a brand new set design by the original scenic designer Stanley A. Moyer, a more fanciful, less literal one that has a terrific storybook feel to it (and is apparently considerably easier to transport). In addition to Tony-winning costume designer Hould-Ward, Tony-nominated lighting designer Natasha Katz was also directly involved in creating National Tour 4 as was Drama Desk Award-nominated choreographer West, making the show look and sound absolutely stunning, with special kudos due West’s imaginative, energetic production numbers. New to this production are sound designer John Petrafesa, puppet designer Basil Twist (love those wolves!), and musical director Carolyn Violi, who conducts the production’s ten-piece orchestra, smaller than previous tours’ but providing a rich, full musical backdrop nonetheless. Music supervision and incidental musical arrangements are by the original Broadway musical director Michael Kosarin.

Disney’s Beauty And The Beast is family entertainment at its finest, providing enchantment for children, romance for adults, and plenty of laughs for both, though not necessarily at the same moments. You won’t find a bigger, better musical treat to celebrate the week before Thanksgiving than Beauty And The Beast.

Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
November 16, 2010
Photos: Joan Marcus

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