Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Romance survives tech glitches in Cabrillo Stage's 'Beauty and the Beast'

Staging Disney's Beauty and the Beast for live theater is a massive undertaking. Along with the usual lavish musical production numbers, this show has magical spells, onstage transformations, aerial effects, video projections, and, not one, but two savage wolf pack attacks.

Just getting this unwieldy thing up onstage, with live actors and no CGI effects, is not a task for the faint-hearted. The trick is to make all these intricate components work and not overwhelm the love story at the show's heart.

The ambitious new production at Cabrillo Stage works hard to maintain this delicate balance, and is reasonably successful. There were bound to be a few technical difficulties on opening night, but that's the great thing about live theater: every new performance is a fresh start!

The good news in director-choreographer Janie Scott's production is a trio of strong performances at its heart — Mathew Taylor as Beast, Emily Mairi Marsilia as Belle, and Carmichael James Blankenship as the narcissistic villain, Gaston. There are many other noteworthy performers in the ensemble, but it's up to these three to sell the story.

Marsililia and Blankenship: no way, Lout
If they don't, all the effects in the world won't help. But if they do — as they did with gusto on opening night — then the glitches don't matter so much.

As the title implies, this is the Disney version of the 300-year-old fairy tale, based on the studio's hit 1991 cartoon feature. In Linda Woolverton's book (she also scripted the movie), Belle is considered "odd" in her French country village for reading books and not being married.

Gaston, a preening, muscle-bound lout, means to wed her because she's "the prettiest girl in the village" — while keeping up his dalliances with the other fawning village girls. Vain, pompous, belligerent Gaston is a horrible character, but a great role. And Blankenship is perfect, with his outsized, comic stage presence and powerhouse singing voice.

When Belle's adored father gets lost in the forest and stumbles into the castle occupied by Beast, Belle braves the forest to get him released — which Beast only agrees to if she takes her father's place.
Taylor and Marsilia: Beastie Boy Meets Girl
Marsilia (last seen at CS as Mary Poppins) plays Belle as an independent young spinster; she has a beautiful voice and her emotions are true. But Taylor's ferocious Beast anchors the emotional story, spitting out his lines with husky menace, or throwing an unexpectedly hilarious hissy-fit. He matures into rumbling nobility with a couple of powerful solos.

Nick Rodrigues is completely charming as chipper candlestick Lumiere, especially leading the ensemble of singing, dancing tableware and furniture in the rousing "Be Our Guest" production number.

Most opening-night glitches were from mics being smacked during the action, and some sketchy wire work. I guess the idea of using wires during the second wolf attack is so that Beast, in his fury, can hurl one wolf across the stage, but it's a cartoony idea that doesn't translate well; the choreography might work better without wires.

On the other hand, while the audience held its collective breath in the finale, with Beast spinning precariously above the stage, his transformation was triumphant. (Or not, if, like me, you don't want  soulful Beast to turn back into the handsome prince.)

(Read more in this week's Good Times)

Seeing this production (and the live-action Disney version earlier this year) reminds me again of how Disney has co-opted the tale. Belle's father doesn't steal a rose from the castle garden in this version; Beast throws him in the dungeon for no apparent reason.

Gaston is a complete Disney fabrication, a cartoon villain to replace the more subtle maneuverings of Belle/Beauty's imperious, conniving sisters.

(Although actors always have a great time in the role. Check out Gaston alums Hugh Jackman and Luke Evans in a Gaston sing-off on the Jonathan Ross show.)

And the idea that all the human servants were changed into objects in the same witch's curse that turned their selfish master into Beast takes some of the fizz out of the love story. The curse can only be lifted if Beast falls in love with a woman and earns her love back, so from the minute Belle wanders in, the entire corps of objects are ganging up on Beast to woo and win her — for all their sakes.

The problem is, this set-up doesn't give Beast and Beauty a chance to fall in love on their own — unlike most traditional tellings of the tale, in which they are all alone in the castle and develop feelings for each other honestly.

Of course, Disney is slavishly faithful to the bit about turning Beast back into the Prince. There's a touching moment in the Cabrillo production when Taylor's Beast, feeling his humanity slip away, mourns, "There's so little left of me." Completely ignoring the fact that the "me" he used to be was kind of a jerk.

But, you already know how I feel about that!

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