Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Book by Linda Woolverton; Directed by Mark S. Hoebee
Regional, Musical Revival
Runs through 7.3.19
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
by Dan Rubins on 6.14.19
Tally Sessions and Belinda Allyn in Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
BOTTOM LINE: There isn't something there that wasn't there before, but it's a solid Beauty and the Beast at Paper Mill Playhouse.
One of my earliest theatre-going memories is from about twenty years ago when I saw the original production of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. I distinctly remember bursting into tears...because my cousin sitting next to me had also burst into tears after the Beast roared particularly loudly. But before seeing the Paper Mill Playhouse’s new production, it had been a while since I last encountered the show in the flesh. Ever just the same?
Well, of course. But originality was never going to be on the menu at Paper Mill’s Beauty and the Beast. Directed by Mark S. Hoebee, the Paper Mill’s artistic director (who decades ago took over the role of the pepper shaker in the show's Broadway cast), this production offers a spirited, if heartily predictable, take on a tale as old as time.
For the most part, this approach will strike gold with the family audiences targeted here: Kelly James Tighe’s revolving castle set and Leon Dobkowski’s Disney-famous costumes (with Enchanted Objects Design by Halsey Onstage) do the trick. And the iconic household characters are as you’ve probably seen them before, with Kevin Ligon a drolly stuffy Cogsworth, Stacia Fernandez an affectionate Mrs. Potts (accompanied by delightful young actor Antonio Watson as Chip), Donna English an operatically gregarious armoire, and Gavin Lee (Squidward in last season's Spongebob Squarepants) gleefully mangling a French accent en route to an appropriately hammy rendition of candlestick Lumiere.
It’s just that Beauty and the Beast is starting to feel a little rough around the edges, plot-wise. Are we sure we’re okay with Belle eventually cozying up to the guy who mistreated her father, locked her up, and threatened to starve her? And we’re cool that he imprisons her specifically because he needs her to fall in love with him before his furriness becomes permanent? And most importantly, given the “Be Our Guest” lyric, “Singing pork! Dancing veal!,” are we right to assume that some servants were transformed into food, and, if so, what happens to them when Belle eats dinner?
I definitely didn’t ask those questions as a kid and Paper Mill’s child audience probably won’t either. Still, one gets the sense that, even given Linda Woolverton’s tidily uncomplicated book, there’s room in this story to probe a little deeper and push back more strongly against the pat morals about not judging a book by its cover and giving people a second chance. Certainly there could be more nuanced performances in the title roles: while Belinda Allyn and Tally Sessions boast powerful voices, Belle and her Beast come across as fairly caricaturish here, with Belle’s quirkiness from the original film barely registering at all. Luckily, there are some sweetly nuanced performances from Joel Blum as Belle’s nutty professor-father Maurice and Kevin Curtis as Lefou,the adoring henchman to Gaston (Stephen Mark Lukas, convincingly self-enamored).
It’s a production that could be a fine homage to Alan Menken’s warmest Disney score (with original lyrics by Howard Ashman and newer lyrics by Tim Rice) if it weren’t for the Playhouse’s sound system, which shrilly amplifies the higher ranges of the orchestra and occasionally over-echoes the actors’ voices, especially for audiences sitting close to the stage. And while the production values are high (dare I say confetti cannon?), some of Hoebee’s staging and Alex Sanchez’s choreography—an overly long tankard-clinking dance routine and an awkward wolf attack sequence, especially—miss the mark. Still, I couldn’t help getting teary-eyed seeing the enchanted objects discover that they were at last becoming human again. Maybe it’s time for this version of an ever-so-slightly synthetic Disney property to transform in the same direction.
(Beauty and the Beast plays at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ, through July 3, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Wednesday at 7; Thursdays at 1:30 and 7; Fridays at 7; and Saturdays at Sundays at 1:30 and 7. Tickets are $87-$122 and are available at papermill.org or by calling 973-376-4343.)
Beauty and the Beast is by Alan Menken (Music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (Lyrics), and Linda Woolverton (Book). Directed by Mark S. Hoebee. Choreography by Alex Sanchez. Set Design by Kelly James Tighe. Lighting Design by Charlie Morrison. Sound Design by Matt Kraus. Costume Design by Leon Dobkowski. Enchanted Objects Design by Halsey Onstage. Music Director is Michael Borth. Stage Manager is Andrea Cibelli.
The cast is Belinda Allyn, Joel Blum, Jenelle Chu, Kevin Curtis, Donna English, Gianni David Faruolo, Stacia Fernandez, Gavin Lee, Kevin Ligon, Stephen Mark Lukas, Tally Sessions, Antonio Watson, Joe Bigelow, Monica Cioffi, Brittany Conigatti, Justin DeParis, Stephen Diabase, Jennifer Evans, Annie Gagen, David Michael Garry, Lauren E. J. Hamilton, Leeds Hill, Brett Michael Lockley, Michael Milkanin, Corinne Munsch, Brett Pederson, Alexa Racioppi, Taylor Rosenberger, Molly Rushing, Bronwyn Tarboton, Matthew Vincent Taylor, and Cynthia Thorne.