Oakbrook—“Beauty and the Beast” is a total triumph at the Drury Lane Theatre, a brilliant blend of stunning production values, superb casting, and an emotionally involving story. Audience members expecting to see a children’s musical that won’t bore adults will be amazed. This “Beast and the Beast” is a superb show for adults that will also entertain children.
The musical is a 1994 stage adaptation of the hit 1991 animated motion picture. The show retells the 1740 French fairy tale about a spoiled young prince who is turned into a monster through a magic spell cast by an enchantress in punishment for his offensive behavior. The prince and his staff are condemned to live in isolation in his castle until he is freed by the love of a good woman.
Book write Linda Wolverton united with composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice to flesh out the story into a lavish fantasy populated by a clutch of charming and fearsome Disney characters. In the story, Belle is a girl in a French village who is considered an oddball because she enjoys reading and doesn’t follow the female career path of becoming an obedient wife. She is pursued by the town lothario, a nasty young man named Gaston who grows into the story’s villain.
Photo credit: Brett Beiner
While seeking her lost father in the forest outside the town, Belle stumbles into the castle of the beast. At first the independent and plucky young Belle antagonizes the bitter beast-lord of the castle. But gradually these kindred spirits, both outsiders in their society, grow to accept each other and fall in love. Their love breaks the magic spell and Belle and the restored prince marry (Gaston has died from a fall from the castle ramparts trying to kill the beast).
For those who like morals with their fairy tales, “Beauty and the Beast” teaches tolerance for people different from us and promotes the power of love to defeat the evils in life. For those who are satisfied watching a splendid musical for its terrific entertainment value, “Beast and the Beast” will not disappoint, whether the audiences are young or adult. There were plenty of children at the opening night performance, and I didn’t hear a peep of any of them during the entire 2½ hour performance. As for the adults, the only noise they made was their applause and cheering in appreciation of one wonderful song and dance after another.
The huzzahs for the performances start at the top with Erica Stephan as Belle, Brandon Contreras as the beast, and Mark Banik as Gaston. The production makes an interesting choice in its portrayal of the beast. The character is primarily delineated by a pair of large curved ram’s horns on his head. His face is plainly visible and his clothing is dark but not really far out. This beast isn’t really a grotesque monster and his more human appearance allows the audience to connect with the character realistically rather than as a cartoon fright.
Stephan is flawless. Her Belle is a brave lass but vulnerable yet definitely not a typical Walt Disney heroine awaiting rescue by a handsome prince from a desperate situation. Stephan carves out a genuine person from the stereotype fairy tale females, and she sings radiantly. High praise also goes to Mark Banik as Gaston, handsome enough to be justified in his vanity (the village girls love him), and his self esteem ruffled by Belle’s rejection. Gaston’s growth from an obnoxious bully into a really menacing figure is credible and scary.
The staff in the castle consists of servants who will be turned into inanimate objects if the enchantress’s spell isn’t broken. They are all beautifully played, mostly for comedy, by Bri Sudia as Mrs. Potts the teapot, Nick Cosgrove as Cogsworth the clock, Tony Carter as Lumiere the candelabra, Sierra Schnack as Babette the feather duster maid, Catherine Smitko as Madame de la Grande Bouche the chest of drawers, and Sophie Ackerman as Mrs. Potts’s young son Chip, who is turning into a teacup as the spell progresses. Ackerman is also one of the chorus’s most notable dancers.
There are about three dozen performers in the cast and they thrive within one of the most sumptuous physical productions I’ve ever seen on a local stage. The residents of the castle wear opulent costumes as though they stepped out of a 17th century baroque painting. Director Alan Souza masterfully employs the Drury Lane revolving stage to change locations evoked by Kevin Depinet’s magically evocative settings, whether in the haunted interiors of the beast’s castle or the brawling village square.
Photo credit: Brett Beiner
Director Alan Souza earns highest props for his creativity in moving moods so smoothly from scene to scene, shaping the dramatic atmospheres from comedy to romance to suspense to danger to a happy ending, every emotion emerging naturally. Souza’s skill in orchestrating the many production numbers is one of the many splendors of the production.
Ron De Jesus is the choreographer, and all I can say is, Sign this man up. His choreography is joyous. The “Be Our Guest” number, always a showstopper, soared for what seemed like an hour with high-energy pageantry and massed movement. The audience could barely restrain themselves from holding back on their ovation until the number stopped.
Ryan Park apparently had a blank check in designing the show’s costumes and he has spent the money well. Ryan O’Gara’s lighting is essential to establishing the musical’s irresistible once-upon-a-time ambience. The same can be said of Ray Nardelli’s sound design. Often the property and wig and hair designers go unrecognized in reviews, but it would be a gross injustice not to congratulate Cassy Schillo for her imaginative props and Claire Moores for her picturesque hair and wig contributions.
I counted nine musicians in the accompanying orchestra, and they played like a 25-member Broadway pit orchestra band. The Menken score is full of lush melodies, all richly expressed by conductor Christopher Sargent and his talented instrumentalists.
I’ve seen “Beauty and the Beast” before and enjoyed each production primarily for its spectacle. The Drury Lane version revealed for the first time that “Beauty and the Beast” is a terrific musical and not just a flashy amusement for wide-eyed children and their tolerant parents. It stands with “The Lion King” at the head of the Disney musical comedy line. Drury Lane has poured a vast amount of resources into their production, to which spectators of all ages can only say, “For this gift much thanks!”
The show gets a rating of
“Beauty and the Beast”” runs through January 27 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 to $75. Visit DruryLaneTheatre.com or call 630 530 0111.
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