Theatre Under the Stars' production of Beauty and the Beast is a bright, colourful, eager-to-please entertainment that practically bursts off the stage. With its outsize characters, enchanting stagecraft, beloved tunes, and of course its classic yet empowering fairytale plot, this production, directed by Shel Piercy, charms from start to finish.
For those unfamiliar with the tale (I'd forgotten the details as it's been a while!), a mean-hearted prince is turned into a scary-looking beast by a sorceress he has wronged, and lives a lonely life shut up in his castle, accompanied by his servants - who have also been magically transformed into household objects. Belle, the book-loving daughter of an inventor in the town, ends up captive in the Beast's castle after he trades her for her father, who he has imprisoned after he lost his way in the woods and knocked on the Beast's door. Only by the Beast falling in love with one who loves him in return will the spell be broken. Will Belle be the one?
Visually, the show is an absolute treat, and makes a perfect counterpart to TUTS' other production this year, West Side Story. That show is full of real-life peril, with a stark, minimalistic set (which is very effective for the purpose), and uses humour largely as a counterpoint to the sense of impending tragedy. Beast, on the other hand, is a fun-filled escape to a mythical land of magic, with impressively varied and large-scale sets, a constant stream of well-executed theatrical effects, and - spoiler alert - a happy ending.
The cast is excellent all around. Jaime Piercy makes a feisty, resourceful and endearing Belle. Peter Monaghan as the Beast starts out gruff and commanding, but soon melts our hearts with his vulnerability as he and Belle warm to each other. Dane Szohner is perfect as Gaston, the swaggering dunderhead who thinks he has a claim on Belle. Caroline Buckingham as an opera singing chest of drawers demonstrates an outstanding voice and great comic timing. (She also delivers a momentary musical nod to TUTS' other show!) And the rest of the cast, including the ever-wacky Christopher Hall as an irrepressible baker, all do a very fine job.
Two standouts are Lumiere the candle (Victor Hunter) and Cogsworth the clock (Steven Greenfield). Their odd-couple act lit up the stage with laughter every time they appeared. Hunter's growly French accent and saucily swirling movement was a delight, and Greenfield's tightly wound clock made a perfect foil for his candelabra colleague.
Story-wise, I particularly like Beauty and the Beast for its refreshing take on fairytale traditions that are often simplistic or reductive. In this tale, there is no instant "happily-ever-after" marriage simply because the male hero acted, well, heroic. Here, the male lead character is reticent, reluctant, and shy, and when he does commit a final act of heroism, Belle's love for him emerges as a result of all that has led up to that moment. Belle herself is characterized by both her plucky spirit and her love of reading.
Along with the wall-to-wall fun, there are touching, emotional moments, of course. It's hard not to be moved by the sight of Belle's father (winningly played by the ebullient Matt Ramer) shut up behind bars in the Beast's castle while Belle begs to trade her freedom for his.
The story also has deeper themes - about acceptance of difference, seeing people as they truly are, and having the courage to reveal our true selves to others.
But overall, it is an endlessly diverting and hilarious romp. Again, as an opposite to West Side Story, the dialogue is full of puns and cheeky humour (candle to clock: "You cut me to the wick!")
"Be Our Guest" in particular is a showstopper, with all stops pulled out: it's a cascade of cutlery chorus lines, Russian dancing, and more - building to a fantastic crescendo that explodes like a fireworks-filled Christmas cracker. It's almost a show within the show, and it garnered some of the biggest audience response of the evening.
The choreography, by Shelley Stewart Hunt, is top-drawer, and snappily executed by the cast. All the movement and slapstick was razor-sharp.
Costumes are inventive and hilarious - except for the silvery masked henchmen, who are effectively spooky.
Musically, Beauty and the Beast has a generous share of memorable melodies and soaring musical moments. With some songs serve the plot more than they stick in the memory - West Side Story edges it out for being a truly classic score - songs like "A Change in Me", "If I Can't Love Her', the eponymous "Beauty and the Beast", and of course "Be Our Guest" are just wonderful. And Wendy Bross Stuart's musical direction – and the orchestra's performance – is superb.
As always with TUTS shows, the onset of nightfall brings a special magic. The gargoyles atop the castle towers take on a fiery glow against the blackness and everything is more intense and colourful than ever.
And the unique outdoor setting also adds unexpected touches, as it did when I attended: a very loud bird was so inspired by Dane Szohner's soloing Gaston that he momentarily turned it into a duet!
All in all, Beauty and the Beast is a perfectly entertaining and rewarding night at the theatre - with charm, humour, spectacle, and a happy ending. Catch it if you can!