All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“Who’d have guessed? Who’d have guessed? That this show’d be so depressed. On a scale of one to five, it would come in at seventh best!”
Enough drollery! With a respectful nod to “Mary Poppins” and a definite insult to “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast” is the most successful Disney show to date. Its romantic story by Linda Woolverton and lilting Howard Ashman-Alan Menken-Tim Rice score is the closest to Rodgers and Hammerstein a musical has come in the last 25 years. I’ve seen the Disney production 14 times and adored it. I also loved the rendition Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre produced in 2005. So why does this tour, not staged by Disney, but by NETworks Presentation, look so cheap and disheveled while playing like amateur night in Dixie? With notable exceptions, Everyone in the touring cast should watch Stephanie Gray as Mrs. Potts to get the tone, the pace, and the level of characterization in the show right. Sam Hartley as the Beast, and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek, also acquit themselves well, and Hartley works the magic of bringing Brooke Quintana, as Belle, to his level when they share most of Act Two (far the better in the this bargain basement version).
Sets and costumes that dazzled in previous productions look flimsy and tawdry. (Ann Hould-Ward, the original costume designer would go apoplectic over the way her creations are cut.) The yellow dress with pink skirt trim Belle wears in the finale looks as if it was brought to the theater through a hurricane. The pink trim wasn’t even in neat rows. This is schlock peddling, not bringing a time-honored favorite to a big city for what should be a welcome umpteenth time.
The lack of care is evident from the start. The scenery passing for trees and other flora looks gauzy and is unconvincing, even as a fantasy background. Quintana, Smith-Kotlarek, and Thomas Mothershed as Belle’s father, do OK is the first sequence, which seems rushed but does its job, but when the scene moves to the Beast’s castle, and you see Lumiere, Cogsworth, and most outrageously of all, Madame de la Grande Bouche, you wonder if you’re watching what should be a Broadway-level tour or at a small town dinner theater. (Apologies to folks who do dinner theater; I don’t mean to impugn as whole cadre of actors because this “Beauty and the Beast” cast was so universally hammy.) You can tell Ryan N. Phillips, who plays Lumiere has talent, and that he is quite cute under his tons of costume, but his wriggling and jiggling and super-sized motions and takes are what you do in Dubuque when you know your grandmother is in the audience. It’s way too much. Phillips is entertaining instead of acting. He’s missing his character by putting on a show. And not a good. Phillips’s antics are as cheap as the background set. They speak “show biz” or Vegas revue and not Broadway theater. No other production of “Beauty and the Beast” has erred this way.
And Phillips is the best of the misbehaving lot. Samuel Shurtleff as Cogsworth and Stephanie Harter Gilmore as la Grande Bouche, are as inappropriately active with having half of Phillips’s charm. You feel as if you’re watching the 1991 cartoon instead of the more serious, more sophisticated 1994 theater version of it.
Then Stephanie Gray appears and you wonder why she is perfect. How come she knows how to stand, how animated to be, and how to pace her lines and movements. Even in dance numbers in which Mrs. Potts is not the focus, Gray stands out for her poise and sense of exactly how much character to exude.
Yes, yes, Mrs. Potts is more formal and less excitable than Lumiere and Cogsworth, but that is not what sets Gray apart. It’s her taste as a performer. In the scenes in which the enchanted characters of the castle, turned into inanimate objects by the same witch’s spell that doomed the castle’s prince to be The Beast, Gray always shows how “Beauty and the Beast” needs to be played. The story, and its comedy, are inherent. They don’t need to the emphasized on overdone. There are enough subtle things one can do to be debonair Lumiere or haughty Cogsworth than to go into Podunk shtick at every convenience.
As I said, watch Stephanie Gray. She knows her job and is a shining example of what “Beauty and the Beast” could and should be.
Scenes with the townsfolk don’t fare much better than passages in the castle. Big takes and exaggerated smiles of the day are the rule in this staging, billed as being directed by Rob Roth, “Beauty’s” original director from 1994. (Roth needs to stop by and do a look-see.) Just as Gray gives you someone (besides Hartley) to appreciate in the castle scenes, Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek singlehandedly saves the village sequences as Gaston.
Believe me, Smith-Kotlarek isn’t helped by the shoddy sound effects heard whenever Gaston strikes his loyal companion, Lefeu. He grants himself all the favors he needs.
Tall, reedy, and sturdy, Smith-Kotlarek is more elegant than most Gastons. He almost seems to be a man you can trust. More importantly, Smith-Kotlarek approaches Gaston with wit. Beneath the ego and overweaning pride, there’s a man who sets the attitude for the town and has the swagger to prove it. If anything, Smith-Kotlarek has to take care not to show too much perception or superiority as Gaston. The character has to be loutish and ignorant, and, in spite of what Gaston has to say about books, Smith-Kotlarek in on the cusp of making him appear smart.
Sam Hartley’s Beast keeps the first act from going completely awry and gives the second act credibility because of the pace he sets and his sweetly sincere portrayal of a creature who wants to change and be the gentleman who can with the love of Belle. And incidentally break the witch’s spell and freeing his household from their bondage as tea pots, wardrobes, clocks, and candelabra.
Hartley sets up the change of tone he will bring to the second act with his rousing and heartfelt singing of “If I Can’t Love Her” to close Act One.
Brooke Quintana is hit and miss as Belle in the first act. You catch her speaking lines instead of conversing with people.
Quintana’s performance very much depends of who is on stage with her. Scenes with Mothershed play warmly and create some suspense because you believe the father-daughter relationship and see affection between the characters.
Passages in town are not as successful. They seems to play by the numbers instead of being presented as an entertainment. At first, I thought this tour may have been out too long and needed some refreshing. But no, it needs texturing it looks as if it was never given.
Oddly, Quintana’s scenes with Smith-Kotlarek don’t work. He is too dominant, and Quintana fades to the background. It’s not Smith-Kotlarek’s fault. Quintana doesn’t seem to be up to his level of comedy or physicality. She does much better with Hartley, whose affection for Belle creates a calmer setting Quintana responds to. She is best when she works with Hartley. They have a chemistry that fits the plots and registers past the footlights.
Hartley and the second act salvage this production. They turn it from a travesty, an unthought, unfelt mounting of a brand-name show, to a piece that draws you attention and makes you care about the characters.
There are high points in the first act. The “Be Our Guest” number plays as grandly as usual, perhaps because it starts out slowly and builds. Even the eager Energizer bunny, Phillips, controls his enthusiasm or surrenders it to the number. Mike Baskowski impresses with his backflips while playing a carpet in the sequence. The same principal players do equally well with “Human Again” a second act number that expresses the hope that Beauty and The Beast will bond, and they characters will have limbed instead of furniture legs. Gray, of course, does a lovely job with the title song, “Beauty and the Beast.”
By the time Belle sings “A Change in Me,” and “Human Again” appears, the show has won you. The first act is forgotten, and Hartley and Quintana, with help from Gray and Smith-Kotlarek can wring the emotion and elicit the romance you expect from “Beauty and the Beast.”
I’m still humming “Be Our Guest” and bellowing, “I’m especially good at expectorating” in the shower. One thing about Smith-Kotlarek, you can hear the operatic training in his voice. Even Harter Gilmore redeems her acting when she signs.
Beauty and the Beast” runs from Tuesday, Feb. 16 to Sunday, Feb. 21 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $120 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org.