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Review: Taryn Lumia and Todd William Donovan Dazzle in the Tarpon Arts Production of Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Be Our Guest!

Review: Taryn Lumia and Todd William Donovan Dazzle in the Tarpon Arts Production of Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Finally!

I have seen dozens of productions of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST over the years, but rarely if ever have I seen Belle connect with the title Beast. Usually the two come across as distant cousins at best, not a romantic pairing for the ages. Sometimes the rose has more personality than this duo. But finally--FINALLY!--we have a Belle and Beast who connect with the Tarpon Arts' latest production of this classic musical (music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; and a book by Linda Woolverton, although her name was misspelled on the front cover of the program).

If you don't know the story of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, then welcome back from Uranus. I would recommend you venture to the MTI website or Wikipedia if you are unacquainted with it and want to catch up quickly. In a nutshell: Girl meets Beast: Girl hates Beast; Girl and Beast slowly fall in love. If you want an enjoyable evening or afternoon in a nice air-conditioned building, and if you are a fan of what is arguably Disney's most famous musical, then by all means head out to the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center to see the production's final weekend, a production that finally gets the parts of Belle and Beast done right.

As the Beast, Todd William Donovan is a beast of a singer, and it's a coup that the Tarpon Arts snagged him for the title role of this production. I have seen and reviewed him in the past with the St. Petersburg Opera Company (he was an especially compelling Emile De Becque in South Pacific), and his vocals are off the charts; they will thrill you and stir you to the point where, yes, they give you hope for humanity (the arts have a way of doing that). If life is tough, then just listen to him sing, and all will be right with this crazy world, at least for the moment. His Beast starts the show like an awkward teen in a rant, but we see him slowly melt for Belle. If you think about it, it's a classic coming of age story: It's not just that the Beast has to become human again through love, but that the boy inside of him must also become a man.

The last song of Act 1, "If I Can't Love Her," must induce goosebumps. It's designed for this. I have seen so many productions, professional and amateur, where the song is sung fine, like a nice karaoke afternoon in an empty Applebee's, but rarely if ever have they induced chills. In this performance of the song, Mr. Donovan not only induced chills, but he all but nearly paralyzed me with that base-baritone voice sent from the gods.

Taryn Lumia is pitch perfect and in top vocal form as the strong-willed Belle, the #1 Disney princess. She exudes such enthusiasm and verve, the joy of living matched with the joy of performing. She has an old-fashioned movie star aura about her, looking not unlike a spirited Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. Ms. Lumia, a soprano, sings splendidly and is in supreme confidant control of her instrument. Her "Home" was an out of the park home run.

The choreography with her at times--a twirl while walking, for instance--comes across forced rather than natural, but she really comes into her own when she works with the Beast. You sense the connection between the two, and if nothing else, that's the most important aspect of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. If Belle and the Beast don't connect, it makes for a torturously stilted evening (and sadly, that's usually the case with this show). I once saw a BEAUTY AND THE BEAST where the title roles didn't connect and the relatively small villainous part of D'Arque stole the show. Thankfully, in the Tarpon Arts production, the connection of these two performers is the glue that holds this whole musical together.

Ms. Lumia is a music and drama teacher at St. John Vianney Catholic Church and School, but she's not the only staff member featured in this production: Her principal, Robert Hernandez, is also onstage as the Bookseller and he does a fine job. (Two of his children, Robert Hernandez and Ella Hernandez, do marvelous work in a variety of roles as well.)

In other parts, Jess Glass is a sincerely likable Lefou, Gaston's one-man fan club. In Ms. Glass' capable hands, Lefou falls all over the place in vertiginous moments of welcomed slapstick and boasts some of the best facial expressions you will ever find. TJ Venieris makes for a formidable Gaston, who's so lovey-dovey with only one soul in the world--himself. He sports a black wig that's a cross between Paul Stanley of KISS and an 80s-era Gloria Estefan; Guns and Roses' Slash meets a coonskin cap. Mr. Venieris prances around the stage to the sound of the squealing Silly Girls (Kara Doyle, Chase Hemphill and Lilly Grodszinsky, all wonderful and worthy of the applause whenever they exit). He's lots of fun, even though his first song, "Me," didn't hit the egotistical heights that it needs to. And there's a drunken quality to the Act 2 trio, "Maison Des Lunes," that we're not sure was intentional or not.

Keith Cox is a wonderfully nerdy Maurice, reminding me of Professor Pat Pending from "The Wacky Races." He's tremendously able actor that we welcome back after a long hiatus from the stage. Unfortunately, he sings the show's most thankless number, "No Matter What," a song that stops the musical's momentum dead in its tracks (not just in this production).

Robert L. Torres is insanely delightful as the clock, Cogsworth, blustery and nit-picky, always complaining (we all have a Cogsworth in our lives, don't we?) As the candelabra, Lumiere, the extremely talented Jeff Schoonmaker is commanding with impeccable timing and a strong singing voice, carrying "Be Our Guest" and "Human Again" on his mighty shoulders. Still, I wish he would be a bit lighter, more flirtatious, like Louis Jordan, where he needs to be the contrast to the snarly Cogsworth. Early on, he comes across a bit too aggressive (leave the aggressiveness to the Beast and the curmudgeonliness to Cogsworth). That said, he was by far the favorite character of the people sitting around me.

Hope Lelekacs makes for an enchanting, sensual, shake-the-show-alive Babette, the feather duster. She has a freedom with her body, a slinky seductress, working with extreme confidence. Aside from the stellar leads, she was my favorite in the show.

Madison Claire is a fabulously imposing Madame De La Grande Bouche who hits the big notes with gusto; imagine Maria Callas as a walking wardrobe. Stacie Steinke is a lovely Mrs. Potts, the teapot, in some ways the heart of the show. As her son, a chipped teacup aptly named Chip, Miles Worsell does quite well, although we don't always hear him.

The ensemble works hard, moving sets, nicely playing numerous roles, and I salute them all: Jade Altman, Joey Arcuri, Madeline Durham (great carpet!), Kimberly Kreiner-Snyder, Trevor Cheatham, Megan Patterson, and Kaitlyn Kamrowski, the latter who has a terrific "bonjour!" that starts the show with a bang.

Hunter Kamrowski stands out playing a plethora of roles, including a creepy D'arque, donning a nightmare-inducing long-nosed mask. Mr. Kamrowski also gets my vote for best bio blurb in the program: "Gets cursed, gets stabbed, doesn't get the girl." (Speaking of the program, I wish a song list had been included in it.)

The cast obviously work their collective butts off. The Opening number, "Belle," is cute, but way too busy, with vocals all over the place. "Be Our Guest" got quite an ovation, and I particularly liked the cup choreography of Erin Kearns here. Minor sound issues showed up occasionally, and since cast members are not wearing individual microphones, if they turn their heads the wrong way or are too far upstage, then we have a hard time hearing some of them.

Master director and renowned theatre teacher David O'Hara, aided by stage manager Nathan Poulette, guides his cast wonderfully and has mounted quite a show.

The costumes by Itssewdarlene Widner are all top-drawer, best of the best, especially the outfits of Cogsworth and Lumiere. And Belle's gorgeous ballgown got gasps of wonder and amazement from the audience when she entered wearing it before the waltz of the title song. My only issue was why Belle dons a little red riding hood cape at the start of Act 2 when she had fled the castle without it at the end of Act 1. I know why the cape was there-so Belle could drape it over the Beast, wounded by wolves, like he was James Brown during his famous "Please Please Please" routine; but it still must make sense in the context of the show.

The animated projections work for the most part, and the props, especially a lighted mirror, add much. But there are some frustrating, dare I say deadly, pacing issues throughout. Long intervals of silence waiting for the action--pauses between scenes--needs to be much, much tighter. After a swell exciting fight sequence of the Beast's objects defeating the townspeople out for blood, there was a long, long, LONG pause that stopped the show right at its most thrilling moment--the climax. The excruciating pacing issues ultimately undermine all the weeks and weeks of hard work and need to be remedied; the show deserves it.

The Transformation--where (SPOILER ALERT!) the Beast has to become human again--is a different issue. There was no unique lighting, no effects, nothing special at what is easily the most important part of the show, and the audience had no idea what was happening. The way it was presented, and if you don't know the show, then you would have no idea what happened at the end and would leave the theater scratching your head in confusion. Eraserhead made more sense.

The main thing that the show lacks, though, is an overall sense of magic. But with Belle and the Beast singing so fantastically, and the two of them connecting to each other so effectively, then maybe that's all the magic that's needed. I guess for all the otherworldly shenanigans in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, it's the human stuff that we embrace the most.

After the show, little girls dressed as Belle posed for photos with Ms. Lumia. They all dream of being this Disney icon, and here she is, in the flesh, and there she was earlier, singing on the stage and grabbing the hearts of the audience. They never will forget this experience. This will either be a great memory for them or a launching pad into the arts; whatever the case, it will indelibly have affected them. That's why BEAUTY AND THE BEAST matters so much; it changes so many young lives, all those little girls who want to be Belle. And since BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is performed so often, some day in the far off future, if these little girls start practicing their singing and acting, then maybe their wish can finally come true.




From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in ... (read more about this author)


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