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Well, let's see. We have the original fairy tale, with all of its own unique trappings. That's been told countless times, and in a least one film version we are aware of. Disney itself, who first produced North Carolina Theatre's current production of Beauty and the Beast, has done this show a couple of times, both in animation and in live versions. So what is to be done, then, to make this stage version musical unique?
First of all, Disney got Linda Woolverton to write a new and different book, one which adjusts some circumstances without altering the tale beyond recognition. Second, they assembled a crackerjack team of writers to compose a new score. This score was composed by Alan Menken, whose pedigree is as long as your arm, and includes blockbusters like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Aladdin. Finally, you put together two already-newsworthy lyricists, Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar) and Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors). With a team like that, you can bet the music is going to be spectacular. And indeed it is.
When North Carolina Theatre rolled out their new show Tuesday night, it was a dazzler! With lavish and intricate sets, some newly created characters to enhance the plot, a new score all its own, and some pretty intricate wordplay fashioning the lyrics, NCT was able to draw a supremely well-seasoned cast to get together a show well worth waiting for, and another feather in a well-festooned cap for the company.
Beauty, or rather Belle, in this case, is played by Catherine Charlebois, with a winsome frame hiding a truly rafter-ringing voice. Beast is played by Ben Michael (South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof), whose voice can be as wild as needed for a beast, and yet beautifully handles the necessary love songs for the pair. The two are supported by a first-rate team of ensemble players, including a song-and-dance troupe savvy and sturdy enough to execute some pretty lavish choreography in some of the most delightful but outrageous costumes ever set on stage! Since the spell upon the beast was also laid upon his household, the entire court has been turned into (what once were) inanimate objects, so we see dances performed by salt-and-pepper shakers, knives, forks, spoons, and plates (which garners its own WOW). The central characters of the castle also now sport odd costumery: Cogsworth (Michael Brian Dunn) is a wind-up clock; Lumiere (Dirk Lumbard) is a candelabra; the cook, Mrs. Potts (Ann Van Cleave), is a teapot; and her son is a cup, Chip (twelve-year-old Andrew Delano Farmer, who received his own roar from the crowd at curtain).
The other folks in this tale are the townsfolk who populate the small village that is Belle's home. Denizens include Belle's papa, Maurice (Lamont Wade), as well as Belle's perennial pursuer, Gaston (Peter Saide), a muscleman who could have any girl in the village he wanted — except, of course, Belle, who sees what a vain and ludicrous man he is. Gaston and his cronies perform some pretty agile and entertaining tricks with steins in one of the show's many show-stopping tunes, this one named, obviously, "Gaston." Our villain-to-be also has a sidekick, Lafou (Matthew Simpkins), whose energies are boundless. All of these actors give 110% to make a truly supreme experience and dazzle both child and adult alike.
The highlight of Act I is the full-company number "Be Our Guest," led by Lumiere and sung to Belle; she is the first visitor the place has had in many a long year. The intricacies of this dance are impossible to tell — they must be witnessed to be believed. One aspect of this dance deserves particular mention, because the ensemble member playing "Carpet" (Cooper Stanton) is indeed memorable for his astounding acrobatics.
Beauty and the Beast, in this sweetly entertaining form, is a delight for the children and a treat for their parents. It hits every chord necessary to cast a spell over us as powerful as the one cast on stage. I confess to a lump in my throat at the magnificent transformation that gives Belle her prince. North Carolina Theatre has pulled out all the stops for this one, and it shows. There is something going on everywhere on stage, and I am sure I didn't catch all of it. This is one of those shows you want to see again, if only to capture what you missed the first time. Director Sam Scalamoni and musical director Edward G. Robinson (really!) have joined forces to bring a true masterwork to this stage, and it deserves your attention.
Beauty and the Beast continues through Sunday, July 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.