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BWW Reviews: Next Stop Broadway's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST IN CONCERT at the Capitol Theatre

BWW Reviews: Next Stop Broadway's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST IN CONCERT at the Capitol Theatre

There's a sense of excitement at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater this weekend. Some of the most talented students from the Bay Area are performing a concert version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST as part of the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts (Next Stop Broadway); it's like a melting pot of the best local middle and high schoolers (kids from Clearwater, St. Petersburg, New Port Richey, Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Wesley Chapel and Tampa). This is where we may find the stars of tomorrow. There's a good chance that some of the students will become professionals in the performing arts, whether in rep companies, local theatres, education, national tours, and (for the possible rare gem of a student whose lucky star is shining bright) maybe even Broadway.

Forty-three teenagers performed this ultimate Disney musical (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and a book by Linda Woolverton) to a packed house. Sometime in the night, audience members couldn't help but have tears welling in their eyes, tears of pride--for those onstage who are continuing down the performing arts path, and for those whose first show this is...a debut that may change a life or two.

Director Jarrett Koski had only a fourteen-day rehearsal process, and this is the first time a concert version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has been done with high school students. Will a concert version of this iconic musical work? Or will the audience miss the theatrical charm of backdrops and elaborate sets? Is this a magic kingdom, or just a bare stage with magical performances? And will a concert version be a beauty of a decision, or will it be a beastly mistake?

I'm still tossing and turning over the final verdict. But one thing cannot be denied...the talent of this group of young people. They have made the show come alive with costumes, microphones and a four-person orchestra; that's it. Koski's staging is tight and imaginative, and though we may miss certain perks that would come with a full-scale production of the show, the concert version is simply stunning.

Courteney McClutchy is a glorious Belle. Grounded and earthy, she is blessed with a heavenly voice. She doesn't overplay the part; she keeps it simple and real. And yet she radiates such warmth, such humanness and believability, that we root for her. Her growth throughout the show, from everyday girl to princess-in-love, becomes quite believable. Her "A Change in Me" is a highlight.

Michael Mekus' Beast, with his lion-like mane, looks like the monstrous lead singer to some 1980's hair metal band. He starts off a growly mess, then slowly melts into a lovesick human. The part is vivid, intense, although his final transformation came across as humorous rather than touching (the set was too well-lit and we could see everything the actor did in his beast-to-man process, losing that necessary magic). Mekus' singing is nothing short of breathtaking. His end of Act 1 solo, "If I Can't Love Her," where he unleashes his inner Terrence Mann with a wall-shaking performance, was extremely powerful, like an emotional punch in the gut. Not bad for a "mere" Disney musical.

But Mekus' finest moment occurs in Act 2 with his "If I Can't Love Her (Reprise)." Real tears flow down his cheeks during this passionately charged moment. Even though he's still a teenager, this is a true actor at work, the real deal, delivering actual emotions and elevating the whole show.

Michael Knapp's villain Gaston has a strong singing voice and is a hoot to watch, though one wishes he could be even more cocky, more self-satisfied, more in love with himself. As his over-the-top sidekick, Lefou, Lara Leggio is spectacular and easily one of the tops in the cast. Leggio's comic timing, energy and physicality are impeccable. The actress steals the opening number, holding Gaston's rifle the way some obsessed fan would cradle one of their teen idol's sweaty t-shirts.

Nicholas Dean and Charles Rowell are very funny as, respectively, Cogsworth (the clock) and Lumiere (the candelabra). Dean is a natural comedian, and his crazy onstage stride is unlike anything I've ever seen--it's something you'd find in Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. Rowell has a great command of the stage and is extraordinarily talented, but his French accent definitely had issues.

Quinn Dupre is quite an entertaining scene-stealer as Babette, the voluptuous feather duster; she resembles a teenaged Brigitte Bardot. Haley Abbot is sensational as Ms. Potts (the teapot) and performs the title song beautifully. Julia LaPierre makes for an adorable Chip. And Danielle Denninger is phenomenal as Madame de la Grande Bouche; we know we're in good hands when she hits the money notes perfectly throughout the production.

The ensemble is quite good, with special nods going out to Michael Mortilla, Kylie Couture, Kelly Daiker and the energetic Caleb Brening (who is always in character, even as he exits the stage). The Gaston groupies are a sight to behold, each one with a distinct personality. And the entire cast brings to life the showstoppers "Gaston" and "Be Our Guest." The entire ensemble sounded wonderful, and the prolonged ovation for "Be Our Guest" was an audience's gratitude for a job well done.

Kudos to music director Jessica Rogers and the grand musicians in the onstage orchestra (Rogers, Sean Fote, Ruth Klukoff and Armando Roldan). Costumes by Justin Hall and Peggy Koski certainly brought that enchanting "wow" factor. Belle's father could have used some age makeup, but the makeup on the Beast worked well.

All of that said, with a concert version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, we sense the absence of the actual full-stage dancing that is expected. We get movement, but the drive of actual choreography is an ingredient we miss. Also, this being a concert, we need the connection of actors actually speaking and singing to each other. Oftentimes, the characters would stare directly at the audience when delivering lines; it works better when they look at the person they are addressing (this isn't a radio play). "No Matter What," the Belle-Maurice duet (well sung by McClutchy and Casey Gloecki), was affected by this.

So I don't know if I'm completely sold on the idea of a concert version of this musical. What I am sold on is the amazing cast, crew and director who brought this to life. With only two weeks preparation, director Koski has started a spark with many of these talented youths; it is up to each one of them to take that spark and turn it into fire.

The future sure looks bright.

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