By Barry Reszel
Art in any form (musical theatre being this site’s exclusive genre) assumes as its quest a glimpse into the soul through a greater understanding of humanity.
Consider this reviewer’s unordered list of “10 significantly impactful” (which may or may not mean “utterly beloved”) musicals of his time:
Phantom of the Opera
The Color Purple
Next to Normal
The point is not to argue this list; it’s admittedly imperfect just by stopping at 10. Anyone interested in seeing this Cabaret and raising the stakes with their own Spring Awakening, Pippin, Sunset Boulevard, Fun Home, Godspell or….
No quarrels. Just a question.
Does Disney’s Beauty and the Beast make anyone’s “most impactful” top 10? OK, anyone who’s not putting it there for the magical memory of getting Belle’s autograph afterwards?
Didn’t think so.
That’s where Alan Souza steps in. The director of the current “through the holiday season” production running at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace is making patrons consider adding Beauty and the Beast to their respective lists of most influential musicals. And that is mostly a good thing.
But, indeed, it comes at a price; so let’s talk about that first.
There are going to be scores of adorable 5- to 10-year olds in yellow-gold lamé dresses who are likely to have the bejeezus scared out of them. These are the ones who will be showing up expecting some kind of Beauty and the Beast on Ice treatment pulled from the 1991 animated film (and, to be fair, the 1994 Broadway production) where everyone is smiling and the old-fashioned story elements of gross sexism, manipulation, wicked sorcery, kidnapping and false imprisonment are mere inconveniences because, hey, those dishes singing “Be Our Guest” make it all OK.
So to those adults who might be planning to bring said 5- to 10-year olds to Drury Lane, please, please, please do yourselves and your fellow theatre patrons a huge favor and first watch with the young people in your life the 2017 live action film remake starring Emma Watson. If that’s too much for them, this will be, too.
Can’t say no one gave you fair warning.
And now that that’s out of the way, dear reader, except for the reason above, there is no way any Chicagoland musical theatre aficionado should miss this excessively opulent, gloriously-performed production. Those desiring a plot summary and/or production history of the Linda Woolverton (book), Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics) 1994 musical that earned 10 Tony nominations and played nearly 5,500 performances, will find it here.
But back at Drury Lane, 2018, plaudits abound. They stem largely from Souza’s fresh, imaginative, realistically dark take on the whole story, which earlier versions, quite frankly, sanitized. And so Belle’s provincial village looks more like the Saffron Hill district of London and its residents, people like Fagin, Nancy and Bill Sikes from Oliver. The enchanted characters of the beast’s castle are crabby, fearful and pale, as creatures facing untimely death (through no fault of their own) are likely wont to be.
First bows, then, for carrying out the director’s stark vision, belong to the odds-on favorites to win 2019 Jeffs for best costumes, Ryan Park; wigs and hair, Claire Moores; and makeup, Amber Wuttke. So, too, Set Designer Kevin Depinet‘s imposing, rotating set is a multi-tiered visual masterpiece, even if its mobility is a bit overused.
Onstage, vocal prowess (Chris Sargent is music director), magnificent dance (excitingly choreographed by Ron De Jesus) and fabulous portrayals of the real, supernatural and caricatured cast of characters combine with this stunning, beloved songbook, gloriously performed by Sargent’s orchestra.
Lovely and talented Erica Stephan is perfectly cast as Belle, bringing a confident feminist that calls out Gaston’s (played well by Mark Banik) buffoonery while disarming his blatant machismo. And then OMG, she belts out “A Change in Me” and every patron’s holiday season is enhanced.
Brandon Contreras in his Drury debut, excellently navigates the complexity of the Beast, beginning as the angry, self-centered, overbearing control freak that ultimately gives way to transformed innocence and kindness. Act one’s finale, “If I Can’t Love Her,” is lovely.
The uber-talented ensemble is led by Tony Carter, delightful as castle-narrator Lumiere, Nick Cosgrove as the curmudgeonly Cogsworth and the matchless Bri Sudia as Mrs. Potts, whose rendition of the title song is beyond gorgeous. Sierra Schnack, is a standout (for a couple of weeks) as stand-in sexy feather duster Babette, for injured Allison Sill, who will return later in the run. Catherine Smitko is hilarious as the opera diva/wardrobe cabinet Madame de la Grande Bouche. And the talented Mark David Kaplan is tender, funny and all-around wonderful as Belle’s father Marurice (think Christopher Lloyd‘s character, Doc Brown, in the Back to the Future trilogy).
All of this vision and talent and hard work leads back to the question of whether this Beauty and the Beast deserves a rightful place on patrons’ “most impactful” lists. Yes, the story has always been about love’s depth; the songbook has always been gorgeous (even more so after “A Change in Me” was added for Toni Braxton when she joined the Broadway cast); and the showstopping numbers (“Gaston,” “Be Our Guest” and “The Battle” in particular) were baked in well.
But in productions past, Beauty and the Beast was presented as a mere fairy tale as old as time. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, particularly for 5- to 10-year-olds in yellow-gold lamé hoping to see Belle after the show. But turning it “human again for the first time” offers a greater understanding of humanity across the ages, a window to the soul and a place on discerning patrons’ lists of impactful art.
Drury Lane theatre presents “Beauty and the Beast” through January 27, 2019, at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett Beiner.