Beauty and the Beast
Within two years of the original release of the animated version of "Beauty and the Beast," critical acclaim for the film as a musical and several independent efforts ultimately brought an adaptation of the Disney film to the stage. Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 75-minute version, is largely charming but doesn’t quite overcome all the obstacles inherent in such an adaptation.
Rachel Rockwell directs and choreographs the production, which bears her usual stamp. It’s lively, well paced and pushes the limits of CST’s Navy Pier space in a satisfying way. Rockwell’s blocking and choreography, together with Doug Peck’s musical direction, make efficient use of a relatively small main cast and ensemble so that the show feels spatially and vocally just the right size.
Scott Davis’s scenic design also contributes to the show’s success on the whole, though there are occasional moments that didn’t quite work (e.g., a fountain that seems too small for the choreography Rockwell had in mind and one of Maurice’s inventions, which was a lovely marvel of stage engineering, but one that seemed big and unwieldy enough that the actor had trouble maneuvering in the space).
Mike Tutaj’s projections (live "sketches" of the difference scenic backgrounds) are gorgeous as always and greatly contribute to the workability of an ambitious production. I’m not sure who on the design team deserves the credit for the impressive stage magic behind the enchantress’ transformation during the prologue and the Beast’s transformation at the end, but they certainly deserve kudos for starting and ending strong.
Any mention of Theresa Ham’s costume design, positive or negative, should also acknowledge the ambition of any staged version of Disney’s story and that of this production, specifically. Most of the costumes are successful. The shortcomings of those that don’t quite measure up seem related to requirements of the original material that just won’t give.
For example, in her frilly cap, modest hoop skirt and one slightly enlarged sleeve, Mrs. Potts looks more like a dotty Wodehouse refugee rather than an animate teapot; but given that the role requires the actor to push a tea cart, it’s not clear what further steps a designer, director or actor could really have taken to "sell" the visual more effectively.
On a similar note, it’s hard to get away from the fact that Bernie Yvon, the actor playing Lumiere, looks like he’s holding two birthday cakes constantly signaling a right turn with each arm, and, well...the ensemble members playing the silverware during "Be Our Guest" have it even worse.
Emily Rohm carries the show as Belle. Her voice is splendid and she plays the heroine with an earnest, straightforward style that’s engaging for both adults and children. Rohm acted opposite William Travis Taylor in Drury Lane’s "Sweeney Todd," (also directed and choreographed by Rockwell), and that pair of performances makes one wish that Taylor had more to do as the Beast. Taylor’s voice is excellent in the little singing he has to do, and he did an admirable job acting in a role that tends to be lost to the costume.
This production really belongs to Belle, and the supporting cast, although talented, was inconsistent. Jake Klinkhammer had terrific swagger as Gaston, but his lower register was taxed by the role. In positive contrast, the "silly girls" played by Rebecca Pink, Maggie Portman and Laura Savage formed a splendid trio.
Joelle Lamarre is also enjoyable as Madame de la Grande Bouche, though the character’s expansion relative to the movie version is not exactly seamless. Rounding out the servants caught in the Beast’s curse, Mary Ernster’s Mrs. Potts and David Lively’s Cogsworth were both fine, but not especially memorable, leading me to wonder if those roles had been casualties of the 75-minute edit.
Although I appreciate that a production designed for family matinees calls for kid-friendly humor, the burden in that regard seemed to fall almost entirely on Andrew Lupp as Gaston’s sidekick, Lefou. There’s little distance between the animated character and Lupp’s portrayal and at times it was too much for live theater. On the grown-up end of the humor spectrum, Yvon’s Lumiere was a bit one note.
Families with young children should pay close attention to CST’s advice that the show is for kids 5 and up. The early parts, in particular, are a bit spine-tingling and several of the younger audience members weren’t quite up to it.
"Disney’s Beauty and the Beast" runs through August 26 at Chicago Shakespeare’s main stage on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue. For tickets call 312-595-5600 or visit or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.