Review: American Stage's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST IN THE PARK at Demens Landing

Runs until May 5th!

By: Apr. 07, 2024
Review: American Stage's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST IN THE PARK at Demens Landing
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There is nothing quite like the American Stage in the Park experience.  For nearly forty years, their park productions have become legendary.  Families sit on blankets, picnicking, singing along to the songs.  Years ago during one park production, I happened to be serenaded by two drunks with a particularly bad rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Some of their shows (In the Heights, Mamma Mia) had the right party atmosphere necessary for a park show, while others (The Producers, Spamalot, and especially last year’s Ragtime), though well-produced, didn’t necessarily need to be an in-the-park experience.  This year’s offering, DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, is obviously a natural fit for Demens Landing Park.

In the audience, there were so many families on picnic blankets, eating and drinking, splayed out in such a way that it looked like a Woodstock for tykes.  Many of the cherubic children were donned as Belle, making it feel like Halloween had come early.  Nature sometimes gets in the way, and in the past, some park shows have been marred by spring showers (thankfully not on any of the nights that I attended).  Birds fly overhead throughout, which works especially well in any forest scenes (nature always provides the best special effects). And the sound of the city surrounding Demens Landing becomes its own character; this was especially true on the night that I saw BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, when a particularly loud rave decided to blare nearby, which sounded to my ears as annoying as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  But this didn’t taint the experience; it only made us appreciate that we were watching the iconic Disney musical and not trapped in that horrid blast-your-eardrums rave over yonder.  And unlike almost all other musicals, when it comes to the park shows, the audience is encouraged to sing along with the songs, so you can possibly hear your neighbors croon “Be Our Guest” loudly and off-key.  It’s a party atmosphere, where nature and art come together, and where the actual experience of being there matters as much as the show itself.  Well, almost as much.

There is not a more iconic Disney Princess musical than BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and the book by Linda Woolverton, the show is an industry unto itself.  The story is known by all: A spell has been cast onto a prince, who has been turned into a horrifying-looking Beast and whose servants have also been transformed into household objects; only if The Beast finds true love and earns the love of another will the spell be broken.  Enter Belle.  And then we get an adventure featuring vain villains, wolves, wacky inventors, dancing Salt and Pepper shakers, and a rose that acts as an hourglass. But you already know that; welcome back from Neptune if you’ve never seen or heard of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

I have witnessed over a dozen productions of it over the years, and have even directed it, so it’s always a treat to see the different angle a director and company do with such a well-known and oft-produced work. They don’t want to fall into the trap of doing the same ol’ production that we’ve all experienced over and over and over; what’s the fun in that?  The great news here is that American Stage’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST IN THE PARK is a blast, perfect for the kid in all of us, with lots of fantastic things to offer but also with some that fall under the “questionable” department.

Alexi Ishida, as Belle, the titular Beauty, shines.  She’s good in Act 1 but she really comes into her own in Act 2.  A song that was never my favorite--“A Change in Me”--became the standout song of the show in Ms. Ishida’s capable hands.  It’s a vocal tour de force, chill-inducing, and Ms. Ishida nails the number. After it was over, during a prolonged ovation, someone in the audience shouted, “Sing it, girl!” I love it when a performer takes a song that I always turned away from or threw away altogether, and though vocal prowess, talent and energy, turns it into a necessity; solely because of Ms. Ishida, I have a newfound appreciation and even love for it.   

As The Beast, Joey Birchler is a terrific actor.  Donned in a costume that makes him look part Trog, part Chaka from Land of the Lost, and part lost soul from The Island of Dr. Moureau, he walks around hunchbacked as if the weight of the world was grinding him down.  You feel his change as the show goes on, and the key to the part--his connection with Belle--is there.  They work quite well together. That said, Mr. Birchler sings his big number, “If I Can’t Love Her,” quite well but it didn’t leave me with the chills I expect from such a song.

As the self-loving villain, Gaston, Nik Vlachos is more lithe than bulky, more a gyrating narcissist than meaty conniving lunkhead.  He’s also quite funny.  Dressed like Flash Gordon, with long hair a la Constantine Maroulis or Lily Collins, he preens, primps and prances.  We just never feel the menace with him, a danger all great villains must possess.  As his bromance partner, LeFou, Chris Cordero steals the show.  He’s a walking cartoon, like Astro Boy with an Alfalfa cowlick as if caused by putting his fingers in an electrical socket. He’s so wild that he almost dares the audience not to laugh at his shenanigans.  And he makes the song “Gaston” one of the show’s best numbers.

Kristin Carbone continues to prove why she’s one of our best actresses. With her pink hair, her Mrs. Potts resembles Mrs. Slocombe from Are You Being Served?  But she is filled with so much caring; she may be the heart of the entire production.  Even when she’s merely walking offstage, she’s still in character, consoling her son, Chip (a wonderfully adorable and even at one point heartbreaking Mars Powers).

Emma Friedman is astonishing and electric as Babette, the feather duster. Anyone who saw Ms. Friedman in Indecent last fall will be astounded by her very different turn here…talk about versatility! Tyler Fish makes for a marvelously irritating and always bitching Cogsworth; his headpiece makes him look like one of the blonde Duloc girls in Shrek.

Justine Grace is a grand Madame De La Grande Bouche, bursting with verve, playing the part to the diva-inspired hilt.  That said, I am not a fan of her costume (the wardrobe is just not imposing enough, just a little too drab for this particular charatcer). Curt Denham is fine as Belle’s father, Maurice; however, he gets the most thankless song of the musical, “No Matter What,” a number that stops the show dead in its tracks and that I still have never found ways to enjoy in any production I have seen.  But I admired his invention (great prop work by properties designer Dean Wick), a contraption that looks like it belongs in a Marcel Duchamp museum.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST IN THE PARK features a terrific ensemble, including Cameron Edris, Taylor Hilt Mitchell, Kayelin Leon, Zoe Marin-Larson, Elizabeth Meckler, Claudia Montague, Devyn Warburton, the lovely Erin Flotz, and David Friedman as a formidable Baker. Michael Ochoa is the talented dance captain and also plays a purple-haired Monsieur D’Arque, but he makes the part too goofy and not as freaky or intimidating as it could be.

And then there's Mathenee Treco who is hands down the best Lumiere I have ever seen.  He doesn’t ham it up like a second rate Louis Jordan. His tall candelabra works well with his buddy Cogsworth and flirty girlfriend Babette, but he’s such a strong presence that we can’t help but look at him onstage wherever he happens to be. And his singing voice is phenomenal, showcased in “Human Again” but especially in the showstopping “Be Our Guest.” There is a moment in “Be Our Guest” where Mr. Treco slows it down, where the song becomes both soulful and torchy, and I just wanted to remain in that moment forever.  There are a lot of reasons to see this production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but Mr. Treco’s Lumiere is the top one on my list.

Some qualms. I wish petals actually fell from the key rose/hourglass prop; as it stands, it’s just sort of boringly there, like any production in any high school anywhere.  My biggest gripe is the absence of the big fight scene between the townsfolk and the household objects (“The Battle”), pitting characters like LeFou against a gigantic wardrobe.  But none of that happens here, which makes the preceding song, “The Mob Song,” superfluous and, in the context of the show, nonsensical. Why do we see the mob ready to storm the castle without any of them (with the exception of Gaston) actually storming the said castle?  The absence deprives the audience of the household items’ big victory and, yes, negates part of the climax of the show.  I wonder if someone who has never experienced BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (who are you?) would notice something was amiss.  

Tech-wise, the show’s an overall marvel.  Jessica Cancino’s set design, with its gingerbread-colored house on one side and the castle interiors upstage center, has the flavor of a Disney World ride to it. Sarah Stark’s costumes are mostly sensational, except for the aforementioned de la Grande Bouche wardrobe which needs to be, for lack of a better word, grander. Robin Wallace’s lighting design is unfortunately muted in the first part of the show due to it still being daylight when the performance starts; but once night comes, the lighting is wonderfully effective, especially at the end of Act 1.

In the past, sound issues have always plagued the American Stage in the Park shows.  It happened so often that I always claimed there are four things we know for sure in life: 1) death; 2) taxes; 3) bad sound in American Stage in the Park shows; and 4) Me complaining about the bad sound in American Stage in the Park shows.  I have great news for you: The sound for BEAUTY AND THE BEAT, with the exception of one glitch, is so much better than in shows past. This is a cause for celebration; all of their hard work of these professionals (especially sound designer Bo Gabbard and head sound/mixer Matthew Nall) in fixing the sound problems over the years has certainly paid off.    

Jessica Hindsley's choreography is tops, especially "Be Our Guest" which is the number audiences wait for, and in this case, they will not be disappointed. Musical director and conductor, Jeremy Silverman, gets the job done with help of his fabulous orchestra: Aaron Cassette and Vincent Titara (keyboard); Burt Rushing, Melanie Downs (drums); Richard Jimenez (bass); Julie Paradies (violin); Melissa Grady (cello); Robert Baldridge, Kevin Clark (trumpet); Jorge Ramos, Tony Fuoco, and Alex Kaufman (reed).

Director Kenny Moten magically leads his cast of heavy-lifters and tech wizards to create a winner.  It’s a true delight! The kids in the audience were all smiles the whole time, waving their lighted rose wands, and their parents were smiling too, probably at the memories of when they first saw BEAUTY AND THE BEAST years ago.  The musical has become a rite of passage, from one generation to the next.  And it works wonders in the park setting.  Let’s just hope in the future there’s not another loud rave going on at the same time nearby. 

American Stage’s production of DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST IN THE PARK at Demens Landing plays until May 5. Be warned: Although it may be a scorcher of a day, it gets quite chilly at night, so bring a jacket!



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