BWW Review: Theatre Under The Stars' BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a Spectacular Storybook Come to Life
Theatre Under the Stars' BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the classic storybook tale vibrantly come to life in every aspect. From the captivating scenic design, to the brilliant costuming, to the songs that prompted many to sing along quietly to themselves in the audience, this 'tale as old as time' is a glorious re-imagination of the production that Theatre Under the Stars premiered for the first time 25 years ago in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Productions.
Artistic Director Dan Knechtges writes in his Playbill note that this show "refers to the power of love for your family, your parents, or your partner, that someone can transform enough to become home for you". As part of their 50th Anniversary Season, Theatre Under the Stars' BEAUTY AND THE BEAST truly establishes itself as Houston's home for musical theatre.
After fifteen years of attending productions at Theatre Under the Stars, I can confidently say that this production is one of the best self-produced shows from them that I have seen. With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, we all know and love the story of Belle the outcast bookworm beauty, the deeply enchanted castle, and the ferocious hard-hearted Beast. This show is a testament to the possibility of what can come about when the designers, creatives, and actors of a show are so in sync that every movement of a set piece, pause in the orchestration, or change in the lighting becomes a palpable, seamless shift into another page of the story.
From the very beginning of the show, when the Enchantress (Madison Turner) gives the exposition behind the castle under spell, it is as if you opened your old, illustrated copy of Beauty and the Beast from when you were eight, and the picturesque scenes jumped off the page and onto the stage. The village number "Belle" sets a charming and lively tone for the show, as the 25+ members of the kid and teen ensembles filled the stage to the brim with full sound and creative choreography. In the same manner that the inanimate objects of the Beast's enchanted castle come to life, Chris Bailey's direction and thoughtful choreography made the classic words and lyrics of this "tale as old as time" come alive right before our eyes.
Delphi Borich is a fairytale Belle, performing with the utmost grace, class, and strength. Borich was the Belle we know and love through and through, and she handled the vocal feat of this show with effortless polish. It is no wonder so many little girls look up to the strong-willed, independent princess, as evident by the many little yellow ballgown costumes I saw dotting the crowd in the lobby before the show.
Speaking of feats of strength, Michael Burrell carries out an immense responsibility as the Beast, stealing the show with Act One's finale number "If I Can't Love Her?". Not only does Burrell have to physically transform from the Beast's heavy makeup and costuming into the Prince at the end of the show, but he presents the Beast's perceptible change of heart throughout the show with authenticity and skill.
We all love to hate a villain, but Keith Hines as Gaston is one villain you just love to love. Hines looks like he could be the 1991 cartoon character's identical twin, and his vocal performance and comedic timing is spot-on.
The various sentient accessories of the Beast's castle were perfectly personified by Price Waldman (Cogsworth), James Patterson (Lumiere), Nasia Thomas (Babette), Carla Woods (Mrs. Potts), and Jana Ellsworth (Madame de la Grande Bouche). Another one of the castle's inhabitants, Brennan Emeka--a student of TUTS' performing arts school "The River"--shone with tangible joy as Chip, earning "Aww"s and applause from the audience any time he strutted onstage.
The castle's collective scenes of storytelling were both entertaining and fun, and left me marveling at Costume Designer Colleen Grady's abilities. Grady left out no detail, from the drawers of the living vanity to the fire on the tips of Lumiere's candlesticks, I was astounded by the functional and aesthetic qualities of her costuming. Hair & Makeup Designer Gerard Kelly created picture-perfect characters onstage, notably in the Beast's extravagant makeup.
The designers behind this production delivered top-notch quality and functionality for such a grand, detailed show. Kelly Tighe's set design made me gasp in awe when the little town was revealed under Rob Denton's lighting design, and the many location changes called for Tighe to create several multifunctional and stylistic pieces. Sound Designer Andrew Harper also had his work cut out for him, as he had to be attentive to sounds as specific as Gaston's spit clinking into a metal beer mug and the echoing of the castle's halls, bolstered by Michael Kosarin's incidental music. Denton's lighting took us through the story with ease, facilitating imagination and narrative as scenes changed from the castle, to the woods, to the village. All of these components, artfully led by Stephen W. Jones' music direction and the orchestra, Danny Troob's orchestrations, and David Friedman's vocal arrangements, formed together with unified harmonization.
When you are little, it is easy--nay, effortless--to believe that the Santa posing for pictures at the mall is truly the jolly, red-suited man that delivers presents under your tree. TUTS' production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST re-instills this childlike quality to their performance, letting each audience member--young and old alike--pause for a moment and believe that the beauty onstage is truly Belle, and her hard-hearted counterpart is none other than the Beast. This is the magic of theatre done well--the ability to be so enchanted by a story that reality falls away for a moment, leaving only the art onstage.
This production is a spectacular demonstration of the power that theatre has to invoke emotion and connection in the individual. I sat in the audience, holding my friend's hand in anticipation as the lights first went up, revealing Tighe's beautiful 'small provincial town'. We gasped with awe during Be Our Guest, and cried tears of nostalgia during Belle and the Beast's title dance number "Beauty and the Beast". I heard whispers of lyrics from those around me, and speculated with the women next to me at intermission how the Beast's costume transformation would be carried out.
TUTS shows us that theatre does not have to be two and a half hours in a dark room, sitting quietly watching a performance on your own. Rather, this production is the fruition of what theatre has the possibility to be when done well. Instinctively grabbing the arm of the person next to you, making eye contact with the actors onstage, and gasping in sync with a theatre of 2,300 individuals, who all just had their breath taken away at the same moment in time. These are the authentic moments of human connection that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST gifts to us this holiday season, and you would be remiss to not experience them for yourself.
Theatre Under the Stars' BEAUTY AND THE BEAST presented previews starting on December 8thand officially opened on December 13th. Performances will run through December 23rd, with extra performances added by popular demand. Visit tuts.com or call the Box Office at 713.558.TUTS (8887) for tickets. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on tickets and subscriptions.