BWW Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at ST VINCENT SUMMER THEATRE
Okay, first of all, I have to open this review with a word of protest. BRING BACK THE SAINT VINCENT SUMMER THEATRE'S ANNUAL FARCE! I know straight plays and farces don't sell nearly as well as big family musicals or small cabaret musicals, and I know that the realities of funding professional theatre and summer stock are what they are, but still: the summer farce was a beloved tradition and I'm sad to see it gone, having covered it annually since I began writing for this site. BRING IT BACK PLEASE! Alright, now the review.
Whenever someone asks me- have I told this story before?- whenever someone asks me what the most perfect musicals are, I say Beauty and the Beast without even thinking. It's not Sondheim, sure, but it accomplishes everything it sets out to do with maximum charm and efficiency. The material, especially the songs by Menken and Ashman, are so good and so immediately infectious that they inform the characters from the moment you begin to hear the musical intros, and Tim Rice's lyrics are the warmest and most human that the notoriously cold and cerebral lyricist ever got. Even with an untrained, charisma-free cast of middle schoolers (stick around the theatre long enough and you're bound to have to see SOMEBODY'S niece play a plate in Mother of Perpetual Suffering Middle School's production of Beauty and the Beast), the material's strength lifts any given production up above mediocrity to pleasantness. And with a good cast, like the one Gregg Brandt has assembled at St. Vincent, it's a great way to spend two hours, though it's two hours you'll spend trying desperately not to break into song.
I assume you know the story. Belle (ERIKA STRASBURG) is sweet but aloof. The Beast (Brandon Schraml) is mean but sensitive. Gaston (Regan McLellan) is mean but not sensitive. There is a clock (Robert Anthony Jones) and a candelabra (Tim Hartman), a teapot (Veronica Decker), a kooky dad (David Cabot) and a... gay best friend? (Andrew Pace). Eventually it all ends happily for everyone, except for Gaston, who dies. Wedding, kiss, standing ovation.
One of the pleasures of this production was seeing so many mainstays of the St. Vincent company's former series of farces appear in unexpected singing and dancing roles. ERIKA STRASBURG's lovely, winning Belle is worlds away from the kookiness of her character in last summer's Leading Ladies, as is David Cabot's Maurice. Those who remember him as the petty, self-righteous Larry David type he played last summer would hardly recognize him as the kindly, slightly doddering inventor he plays here. Then again, there is NO mistaking Tim Hartman, famously prodigious in height, voice and wit, and director Brandt has wisely let him off the chain a little bit here. Hartman's Lumiere is less Maurice Chevalier and more Inspector Clouseau, and (again playing to a proud St Vincent Summer Theatre type-casting) probably the horniest character you'll ever see in a Disney show. As always, Hartman is a treat, working every line, glance and bit of physicality like a pro. He may not sing the infamous "optional high C" that ends "Be Our Guest," but nobody else does, and his quippy asides to Belle during the extended dance break had the audience in stitches.
Also keeping the audience in stitches was unexpected comic highlight Regan McLellan. Tall, lanky and square-jawed, with a tenor voice forced into a lower pitch, McLellan's Gaston feels highly reminiscent of musical-comedy superstar Neil Patrick Harris; in fact, anyone who has seen A Series of Unfortunate Events will go a step further and say that this Gaston feels like a Count Olaf persona. McLellan nails the character's self-important buffoonery and obsession with masculinity, which makes his double act with Andrew Pace's LeFou even funnier. Pace embraces the high camp element of the character, finding ways to Galindafy, for lack of a better word, every bit of business. There's nothing subtle about it, but you don't come to Beauty and the Beast for subtlety.
In the less comedic leading roles, Brandon Schraml has the best Beast speaking voice I've ever heard, and one of the best Beast singing voices. Navigating the space between the monstrous growl of the bestial character and the pop-operetta singing the soaring ballads demand isn't easy, but Schraml pulls it off with surprisingly little digital enhancement (a staple of the role in many professional productions). Veronica Decker's Mrs. Potts is warm, welcoming and charming, with a lovely voice perfectly fitted for the titular song. And the ensemble... the ensemble is FUNNY! Though relatively small for a show of this size, the ensemble performers are well-differentiated and find clear moments of character and levity in big numbers like "Belle" and "Be Our Guest." Perhaps it helps that mixed in among the dancers are character actors from St. Vincent shows past like Lilli Babb and Harley Allen. Between Brandt's staging and Renata Marino's choreography, the rather small St. Vincent stage feels like a larger Broadway house, thanks to some judicious use of the aisles and vomitoriums for additional staging.
I genuinely love this show. It was the only high school musical I ever did, and every time I see it I remember good times I've had in it over the years, casts I have seen, casts I've been in. I definitely walked away from this production with more of those happy memories than usual.