Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Musicals At Richter

'Disney in the Park' Production Opens 40th Season of Connecticut's Longest-Running Outdoor Theater

By: Jul. 09, 2024
Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Musicals At Richter
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Shakespeare in the Park is a popular staple of community and professional theaters wherever the weather works for outdoor staging and there’s a patch of open space to fill with the classics of comedy and tragedy. 

What about Disney in the Park? (Hey, if it’s good enough for Will, it’s good enough for Walt, right?)

To open the curtain on its 40th season, Musicals at Richter, which performs al fresco at Richter Arts Center in Danbury, Connecticut, is presenting a beautiful staging of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, now through July 20. (musicalsatrichter.org)

Adapted from Disney’s animated blockbuster, this is the version that ran on Broadway for 13 years (1994- 2007), with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. (A “newly reimagined 30th anniversary production will tour America in summer 2025.) To supplement the familiar “hits” from the Disney animated movie, such as “Be My Guest” and the title tune, the composers wrote new material that is serviceable if not as memorable.

As a newcomer to Musicals at Richter, which proudly bills itself as “Connecticut’s Longest-Running Outdoor Theater,” I was thoroughly enchanted by the immersive experience. 

The venue – which is undergoing a $150,000 physical makeover that includes indoor restrooms – manages to be both intimate and expansive. The grounds can accommodate up to about 300, with patrons bringing their own chairs and picnic sustenance, or taking advantage of the concession stand. 

There’s plenty of room on the lawn for everyone to be close enough to the stage while also comfortably ensconced in their own space. The sizable stage is smartly scaled to match the open air surroundings. It even has a sly design nod to classical theater architecture, with partial gold molding bracketing the stage to suggest the proscenium arch. The stage will be topped off with a roof as part of the ongoing Richter renovation. In a cast that numbers close to 50, for teeming production numbers like “Belle” and the celebratory “Be My Guest,” the stageful of actors in their many-splendored, fairy tale costumes makes for a delightful eyeful.  

When it comes to glossy entertainment of the first order, Disney has long been the gold standard in whichever artistic medium it chooses to master. As a result, being charged as a steward of the Disney brand comes with high expectations. There’s no finessing or non-chalanting. The quality must be genuine and rigorous. 

With Beauty and the Beast, Musicals at Richter passes that test with flying colors. By now, we all know the story and the moral of the story: Bratty young prince who mistreats his underlings is transmogrified into a hideous beast by an enchantress. The antidote to reverse the curse is for him to humbly learn to love and to be loved back. Enter the inevitable ingenue, Belle, who’s being wooed by gruff and narcissistic Gaston. And off we go.   

Carefully plotting the position of actors and their actions to create a series of pretty pictures for an audience to savor is the job of Director. In that role, Donald E. Birely (also in charge of the fantastic costumes, with Renee Purdy) clearly demonstrates expertise and experience in putting this show on its feet nimbly, to maximum effect. 

Whether a scene features two characters or full ensemble, we’re reflexively leaning in to take it all in. There’s no wasted movement, with story and song proceeding at a brisk pace for this “tale as old as time.” (Albeit there was a moment or two at the opening performance I saw when it felt like an actor’s entrance was late, but that’s a cavil more than a criticism).  

In virtually all of its production values, Beauty and the Beast meets the demands that define Disney quality. The nine-person orchestra, under the baton of Benjamin Doyle, is in fine fettle throughout, whether it’s coloring narrative moods with the continuous underscoring or going full tilt on show-stoppers like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest.” 

Hearty applause also to Choreographer/Assistant Director Matthew Farina for the crowd-pleasing percussive “playing” of syncopated beer steins in “Gaston,” a terrific number that evoked for me “The Bottle Dance” from Fiddler on the Roof. The visual spectacle synonymous with Busby Berkley also came to mind.

Supported by a veritable community of ensemble players, the principal performers are well cast, with notable vocal talent in the person of Hannah Grace as the bookish, sought-after Belle, Charles Romano as a progressively petulant-to-poignant Beast, and Stacey Snyder as Mrs. Potts (whose pitch-perfect rendition of the title song channeled Angela Lansbury in the best way possible). 

There is serendipitous comedic pairings with Max Monson and Robert Fontenelli, as arrogant Gaston and his lapdog sidekick LeFou, respectively. They prove adept at carrying off several bits of physical comedy, with the rubber-limbed Mr. Fontenelli proving a perfect foil for the cartoonishly brutish Mr. Monson, who is fun to watch strut his stuff. When he spits out the line “Make no mistake” (as he exits stage right) his intentional lisp reminded me of cartoon character Snagglepuss. 

Another laugh-worthy duo are Robert Bria as Lumiere the candelabra and Michael Solano as his pal Cogsworth the grandfather clock. They energize every scene they’re in with their antics and pull off very effective French and British accents. 

Others turning in solid supporting performances are Ted Schwartz as Belle’s father Maurice; Jennifer Analise Roberts as Babette; Pam DeHuff as Madame de la Grande Bouche; and the Silly Girls – Isabella Andrade, Gabriela Reyes, Rachel Salvador, Daisy Stott. 

On the tech side, the sound amplification for the actors who are miked is as crisp and glitch-free as you’ll hear in any local theater, thanks to the flawless Sound Design and Execution of Mark Firestone. (Projection could be better by some ensemble members not miked who have some dialogue, mainly in the opening number.)

One of my favorite performers also is one of the youngest. Master Dylan Quintero goes to the head of class for his portrayal of Chip, the son of Mrs. Potts who has been turned into a teacup. We only see his head as part of a cleverly crafted illusion, with credit to Steve Loftus of Scene Works for his altogether top-shelf Set Design and Fabrication, with a nod as well to Denise Fontenelli for Properties Procurement and Sourcing. Master Quintero must act with only his eyes and voice, and he makes an indelible impression. 

As daylight descended into darkness, I found myself fascinated by the surreal effect of the stage lighting spilling over into the tree canopy lurking in back of the stage. In effect the created stage set extended into the scenic design au naturel of the woods, creating a perfect penumbra of light and dark under the ebony sky of a summer evening. Eric Schutz is responsible for the outstanding Lighting Design, with Lighting Execution by Arden Minor. Technical Director is Christopher Ruopp. 

In addition to Music Director Benjamin Doyle (Keyboard 1), the talented orchestra is Stephen Purdy (Keyboard 2), McNeil Johnson (Violin), Devora Trestman (Flute and Piccolo), Maren Tonini (Oboe), Oved Rico (Horn), Don Hurta (Bass), Sedona Taylor and Logan Madureira (Percussion). 

A couple more observations in the interest of what is intended as constructive feedback … 

At one point when Belle is alone, about to sing downstage, a stagehand popped out of the stage right wings pushing a prop. While it is common procedure for stage crew and actors to transport props on and off stage during a show, it’s usually in between scenes rather than in the middle of a scene, so this proved visually jarring to at least one audience member (me). 

With an ensemble this large, there invariably will be variable levels of energy and engagement among the supernumeraries on stage. I spotted a couple of the performers in the back row during production numbers who seemed uncertain what their physical business or facial reaction should be, and so appeared to be disconnected from the action on stage. 

 



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