Favorite

Another Beauty 

Beck Center mounts a splendid return of Beauty and the Beast.

For all the constructive lessons that fairy tales give us, there can also be a downside. A prime example is Beauty and the Beast, which on one hand instructs wisely that we should look past superficial appearances to find the real goodness within a person. But how many little girls have grown into women who endure a partner's beastly behavior -- even violence -- on the premise that if she just loves enough, a gentle and caring prince will eventually emerge.

Good stories often have these contradictory layers of meaning. And that's a good thing -- it invites us to think in more complex ways about our human condition. And speaking of good things, the Beck Center is once again mounting its production of Disney's B&B, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and featuring performers in the major roles who excel in virtually every aspect.

Merging seamlessly enriching sound effects and a couple of dazzling feats of illusion with his thoroughly committed cast, director Fred Sternfeld creates a spectacular stage experience that should be required viewing for two groups of people: children under the age of 12, and everyone else. While you probably won't be convicted of child abuse if you don't take a young person to see this production, the trial could be long and nasty.

Reprising their title roles, Natalie Green and Dan Folino make beautiful music together and separately. Green's Belle is sweet without being sticky, and her solos are wonderfully clear and pristine. While he sings with power and depth, Folino is best when emitting his low growls of displeasure and dealing with the Beast's social dysfunctions (urged by his servant to say something about Belle's fancy dress, he stares and then snaps: "It's pink").

In one of the great comic roles in musicals, Josh R. Noble is a hoot again as Gaston, a mass of rippling and quivering ego topped by a clueless grin that looks like an overly aggressive teeth-whitening ad. Among the household staff-turned-appliances -- due to being put under the same spell as their master -- Douglas Collier, Larry Nehring, and Tracee Patterson turn in solidly professional work. And Zac Hudak trembles mightily as Gaston's butt boy Lefou, who is slapped, punched, and shoved more than a fresh mound of bread dough.

Buoyed by choreographer Martin Cespedes' witty dance numbers, the production rarely loses its pacing and punch. The lone exception is the long "Be Our Guest" extravaganza, in which all the kitchen implements welcome Belle to the castle. Somewhere between the dancing plates and the frisky salt and pepper shakers, this delightful song loses its drive, staggering to an exultant conclusion that feels a bit superimposed.

There are still some extraneous scenes, such as the meeting at the tavern where Gaston plots to put Belle's father in an asylum -- a vestigial subplot that goes nowhere fast. But overall, this is an admirably well-conceived show performed to near perfection. Hard to ask for more on a holiday evening.

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