Paper Mill Playhouse ends the season with unexpectedly touching romance
Beauty and the Beast closes out Paper Mill Playhouse’s 80th anniversary season with charm and humor. Based on the 1991 Disney feature cartoon, the first and only one nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, this stage version remains faithful to the film while musically expanding several scenes. The result is quality family entertainment: humorous enough to satisfy younger audience members, while providing adults with an unexpectedly touching romance.
The story is familiar. Maurice (Joel Blum), an inventor, takes refuge in a castle after getting lost in the woods. The castle’s owner, an enchanted prince in the form of a hideous, ill-tempered Beast (Tally Sessions), holds the old man captive. Maurice’s daughter Belle (Belinda Allyn) finds him and takes his place as the Beast’s captive. To break the spell, the Beast must learn to love—and must find someone who can see past his external form and love him in return. Surrounding the main characters are two groups. First, there are the villagers, headed by the vain, ignorant town bully Gaston (Stephen Mark Lukas) and his toady Lefou (Kevin Curtis). Then there are the enchanted objects of the Beast’s castle, transformed versions of the prince’s court and servants. They include the teapot/cook Mrs. Potts (Stacia Fernandez), candlestick/valet Lumiere (Gavin Lee), and clock/majordomo Cogsworth (Kevin Ligon).
Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee, with the assistance of choreographer Alex Sanchez, keeps the show moving along smartly while not rushing the more romantic scenes. The familiar movie score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is intact, including the show’s opening number “Belle”, the romantic title song, and the lively production number “Be Our Guest.” Additional songs by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice include “No Matter What,” a playful song for Maurice and Belle, and the Beast’s despairing “If I Can’t Love Her.”
The center of the show is Belinda Allyn, who was enchanting as Maria in Paper Mill’s 2016 production of West Side Story. Her portrayal of Belle, with a grounded innocence, a strong sense of self, and a quiet beauty, is the rock upon which the production rests. While Tally Sessions’ Beast is not as immediately likeable, his gradual transformation in manner is the mark of a talented actor. His opposite number is the Gaston of Stephen Mark Lukas, maintaining a balance between self-absorption and rage, between ignorance and arrogance, all mixed with a total lack of conscience. The major amount of the comedy is supplied by Gavin Lee’s Lumiere and Kevin Curtis’ Lefou, pulling out all the stops when it comes to using their physicality to get laughs. A special mention goes to the members of the ensemble, performing all their numbers with a level of harmony and diction which many choruses fail to achieve.
Kelly James Tighe’s fluid sets are beautifully lit by Charlie Morrison. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are fine at enhancing character, and Travis Halsey, of the Chicago-based firm Halsey Onstage, adds a touch of magic in his designs for the enchanted objects. Most of the special effects come off well, including a shadow puppetry prologue telling of the prince’s transformation. However, one wonders why the very last one—air cannons on either side of the auditorium shooting silver confetti—is there at all, except perhaps to justify the cost of their purchase and installation.
Beauty and the Beast thankfully does not pretend to be anything more than what it is: a beloved fairy tale set to music, an entertainment that is designed to appeal to audiences of all ages. As their last offering for this season, Paper Mill Playhouse has given us a beautiful gift. For those who seek a show perfect for all ages, funny and romantic, you cannot go wrong seeing this production of Beauty and the Beast.