By Barry Reszel
So first…let there be no doubt the entire production of Paramount’s Beauty and the Beast is truly magnificent. Beth Stafford Laird‘s Belle is beautiful with a subtle female empowerment attitude; Paul-Jordan Jansen‘s Beast is all the jumbled emotions of ferocious, frantic and, ultimately, tender and kind. Every aspect of the show is Paramount-expected Broadway caliber.
Now that the bottom line is delivered…girlfriends, let’s talk about the gold dress.
Because for this reviewer who appreciates without fixating on lovely costuming, that iconic dress is all that…and then some. It swishes. It swooshes. It mesmerizes. It’s a legit takeaway from a show spectacular in every way. And so first kudos in this review belong to Costume Designer Theresa Ham and the team of Paramount wardrobers, among the hardest working folks in the biz.
Indeed, all of Ham’s innovative costumes, even those not golden-hued, illustrate her Midas touch. Complemented by the magnificent hair and wig work of Katie Cordts and Jesse Gaffney’s fabulous props, they bring to life the personified castle inhabitants embodying household furniture and accessories. It certainly helps the bodies within belong to a team of more than 20 of Chicagoland’s finest triple threats portraying the well-known Disney animated characters.
So, too, Jeffrey D. Kmiec‘s incredible, seamlessly mobile, multi-level scenic design is among the finest ever constructed. Along with Mike Tutaj’s first-rate projections and Jesse Klug‘s illuminating lighting, Belle’s provincial little town, its boisterous tavern, nearby scary forest and the majestic beast’s castle are brought to vibrant life in which the spectacular cast continues the magic.
Requisite kudos begin with the leads (hey, the show’s name is Beauty and the Beast). That doesn’t make them any less than fully deserved. Jansen, among the finest Chicagoland performers, plays his second beastly character at Paramount (third, counting the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz) after bringing the house down as Sweeney Todd two seasons ago. His operatic rendition of “If I Can’t Love Her” is a huge take-away from this Beast, who transitions perfectly from ferocious monster to charming prince with tender elegance.
Though Paramount’s production marks Laird’s Chicagoland debut, it’s certainly not this Belle’s first “Be Our Guest.” Starring in the international tour through Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Laird has honed the character of Belle to both make her instantly endeared by nostalgic purists while adding a certain confident moxie not always seen. As such, she gives off a more appropriately contemporary feminism in scenes with Gaston and the Beast that simply makes this production better. Add her gorgeous voice to the mix, and it’s clear Laird’s presence is casting perfection.
That’s courtesy of splendid Director Amber Mak, who shares Ham’s Midas touch. Indeed, she is a talented director and choreographer, who, with Co-Choreographer Todd Rhoades, brings out the fabulous in every member of their talented ensemble. They’re supported by Musical Director Kory Danielson and his full pit orchestra, truly a hallmark of Paramount’s productions.
Magnificent casting continues with a plethora of fabulous talents. Of particular note, Jackson Evans as candlestick Lumiere and George Keating as the uptight clock Cogsworth, narrate the castle goings-on with wit, tenderness and physical humor. The lovely Jennie Sophia takes on the role of Teakettle Mrs. Potts with maternal love and the necessary incredible vocals in the signature solo title song.
Ron E. Rains is a lovingly touching Maurice, Belle’s father; Katherine Lee Bourne is sexy as featherduster Babette; Becca McCoy is hilarious as opera diva-turned-wardrobe-cabinet Madame de la Grande Bouche; Emmett O’Hanlon is a complete stud (no padded suit required) with a booming voice as the rock-headed neanderthal Gaston; and Nick Druzbanski, as Gaston’s wingman Lefou, comedically owns every scene in which he appears.
With a gorgeous score by generational-composer Alan Menken, lyrics by Tim Rice and Howard Ashman, Beauty and the Beast‘s is a delicious songbook harmoniously syncing with the storybook by Linda Woolverton in telling this tale as old as time. “Gaston,” “Be Our Guest,” “A Change in Me,” “Human Again” and the title song are this reviewer’s personal favorites, all delivered by this gorgeous cast with great aplomb.
Paramount’s is the last of Chicagoland’s superb regional big-house suburban theatres to open its 2019 holiday production. It joins splendid presentations of Oliver! (Marriott, Lincolnshire), Mary Poppins (Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace) and White Christmas (Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN) and numerous joyful, seasonal favorites to bring forth tidings of comfort and joy.
There is absolutely no reason for patrons to miss out on the embarrassment of musical theatre riches offered Chicagoland patrons, because being their guest at one of these productions is certain to make one human again.
Paramount Theatre presents “Beauty and the Beast” through January 19, 2020, at 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.