BWW Review: Set & Costumes the Stars of NTP's Production of Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
If a theatre company chooses to do Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, then it must opt to include the following: 1) terrific sets; 2) magical costumes; 3) stirring vocals and convincing acting; 4) a sense of fun and joy; 5) clever choreography; and 6) lots of heart. Running through August 7th at the University Area CDC in Tampa, the New Tampa Players, a community theatre group, is presenting this classic musical. I have seen several productions of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and they have ranged from the phenomenal to the merely okay; the New Tampa Players' production, which I had the pleasure of attending opening night, is somewhere in the middle, where some aspects can be crowned "phenomenal" while others rest at "merely okay." So even if this particular one doesn't hit every item on the official BEAUTY AND THE BEAST checklist, it is an enjoyable show for the whole family.
First and foremost, you can't do BEAUTY AND THE BEAST without a bitchin' set. I have seen some that have not included this, that are sadly less than paltry in the scenery department. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST must be a magical experience, so this is not the time to short-sheet the sets and turn this classic tale into a barren No Exit. Thankfully, the New Tampa Players come up victorious in this department. When I heard that James Cass was the artistic set designer here, I knew that we would be in for a treat, judging from the previous top-quality sets that he had created with the Carrollwood Players. But I wasn't prepared for the incredible set before us--from the moveable village (like an oversized Gingerbread Land) to the intimidating castle. It's a storybook dream, amazingly designed and constructed (by Keith Postle, Bob Hildebrand, Gene Kish, Dan Giles, Cameron Giles. John Camacho and Todd Wiener), and works sensationally well. It's also ingenious in a Rube Goldberg kind of way, where even a dungeon becomes a working fireplace.
Almost as strong in this production are the amazingly ornate costumes and set pieces. If you can't have these in your show, then you probably need to choose a musical where costumes don't matter as much (The Last Five Years?). BEAUTY AND THE BEAST cannot be drab; it must be alive and vibrant (acting, singing and choreography need to be top-drawer, of course, but the rest are saved by costumes). Thankfully, again, the NTP do an incredible job here. Shelley Giles and Heather Cleveland's costumes are eye-popping wondrous. Best of the glittery bunch, in my opinion, is Madame de la Grande Bouche's multi-purpose wardrobe. And the wolf costumes are appropriately ghoulish and sinister.
So #1 and #2 on the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST "must have" list can be checked off. Which brings me to #3, stirring vocals and convincing acting. Here the show gets a partial check. The part of Belle is played by Melissa Doell, and she has a lovely singing voice. But I miss some of Belle's strength, her punch, and would like to see more of a connection with her beloved Beast. As the titled Beast, Adam Shoemaker is growlingly winning and looks like Lon Chaney Jr. as the wolfman with the hair of Paul Stanley from KISS. "If I Can't Love Her," the Act 1 closing number, usually gives me chills and leaves me misty eyed as we head into intermission. Shoemaker sings the song well enough, but something was missing. No chills here.
I want to see more of a connection between these two iconic characters--something that we can root for, hope for. Don't get me wrong, it's all nice here; I just want more.
As the villain Gaston, Eric Bohner plays him as a goofy cartoon--channeling Chris Farley and adding Quentin Collins-like muttonchops. As his sidekick, LaFou, Ryan Farnworth is quite entertaining, and Thomas Pahl makes a passable Maurice.
In the Beast's castle, Matthew Riegel is a joy to watch as Lumiere, though his accent is all over the place--he needs more Louis Jourdan and less George Sanders. As the grumpy Cogsworth, Andrew Blizzard serves the show well, while Kim Wacker's Babette is vivacious and adds energy to every scene she's in. Heather Lyn Mackey's Mrs. Potts is a standout and sings the title song gorgeously; as her "son," Chip, Claire Shoemaker is adorable.
Amy Rothman's walking, talking wardrobe--Mme. De La Grande Bouche--is simply wonderful. She sings marvelously and is always in the moment performance-wise. She's just a joy to watch--stellar and bigger than life.
My choice for Best In Cast goes to Trevor Lloyd, who makes the most of the smaller role of D'Arque. Here's where a secondary character eclipses all others onstage. I am always excited when this happens because the cliché works here--"there are no small parts; only small actors." Well, Lloyd is just tremendous in singing, acting, body movement, and characterization. Looking like a male version of Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie, he becomes quite a joy to watch, leaving us wanting more. The whole package is here, and though we have to wait to see Lloyd make his main appearance in Act 2, it's worth the wait.
The ensemble does well and obviously seem like they are enjoying themselves onstage. Matthew Vickery looks commanding in his silent opening as the Young Prince, and Alison Giles (the assistant choreographer) makes her mark as the Enchantress, though I wasn't thrilled with how this scene was staged. Fine voices are aided throughout by ensemble members Darrah Winkler and Erica Speranza. There are also several children in the cast, including Julia Sanders, Monica Paine, Jose Lopez and Gail and James Shoemaker, some of them portraying adorable teacups. For the very young, it is wonderful seeing them onstage, but they have to remember to always stay in character and not look out at the audience (I know this can be quite tough when they can see their proud parents beaming at them).
But the chorus is strong throughout, and the harmonies overall are quite good.
Director Kari Ann Stamatoplos obviously knows what she's doing, creating stunning stage pictures and making sure the show moves at an exceptional pace. It certainly does that, with very little down time. And I loved the tableaux in the tavern at the start of the "Gaston" number (great lighting here by Todd Wiener and Gene Kish); it reminded me of a Jan Steen painting. However, one directorial choice drove me in a tizzy. So often in this production, the actors face the audience when they are speaking their dialogue or singing their numbers without facing the other actors. This is a particular pet peeve of mine. Gaston does this almost the entire time, and it makes no sense that he is singing about (and to) Belle and never really looking at her (always facing the audience, always). Many others in the cast do this as well. I understand the idea of "cheating out," but not at the expense of character development and connection to the other cast members. These aren't Shakespearian soliloquies.
Also, the spell of the show is broken when we see a stagehand not in a BEAUTY AND THE BEAST costume clearly walk onStage Holding a chair or moving the sets; I just never like having the magic of the show dissipate, even for a moment. This isn't presentational theatre.
Jarrett Koski adds his usual choreographic flair to the proceedings. The dances are lively and certainly clever (mark another check on the aforementioned list), but also at times a bit messy and all over the place, especially the large show-stopping numbers like "Be Our Guest," where so many actors are on the stage at once. It sometimes looks like cars rerouting from a traffic jam.
The orchestra, conducted by music director G. Frank Meekins, is a delight and keeps that all-important pace up. So special mention must be paid to Federico Montes on trumpet, Samantha Snow on French horn, Joseph Snow on the flute and piccolo, No'ah Redstone on the oboe and English horn, Brooke Dansberger on the clarinet and bass clarinet, Colleen Hoffman and Edveldo Mulla on the cello, Caleb Hausmen on the bass, and Nathaniel Kintner on the drums.
Finishing up the checklist, the show was fun and joyous, but I felt it needed more heart. Perhaps the connection between the actors--especially Belle and the Beast--will grow as the run continues. And singing to each other instead of constantly facing out to the audience may add that extra dimension missing here. It's about the need for actors to connect with each other.
In the end, it's a perfect show for the family, especially the kids, where they get to be guests at what is arguably the most famous of all Disney musicals, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. And the New Tampa Players do fine with the show; I was able to mark off most of the items on the checklist. Into the Woods is their next offering in November, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing that.
NTP's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST plays at the University Area CDC, 14013 N 22nd St, Tampa FL, 33613 until August 7th. For more information, please visit their website at www.newtampaplayers.org