Beauty and the Blimp

It's pretty near impossible not to be impressed with the Actors' Playhouse's gangbuster production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast (yes, the corporate moniker is part of the official title). This should come as no surprise; the Coral Gables troupe has become the undisputed king of musical theater in South Florida. In truth, surprise is not a word usually associated with the Playhouse, which rarely takes artistic risks, opting instead to scale huge production challenges. Each season has seen bigger and bigger musical productions. Beauty isn't the most difficult Playhouse project in terms of its musical requirements, but its technical challenges are daunting. The show is filled with magical sleight of hand, big dance numbers, and a formidable array of costume demands -- most of the furniture, from the tables to an acrobatic doormat, are dancing characters. The Playhouse production, which closely resembles the on-going Broadway version, now in its eleventh year, also calls for a formidable cast of 26; some of the big musical numbers require more actors on stage than some local theaters hire for an entire season.

The basics of the Beauty story are well known -- a young girl, Belle, is imprisoned by a rich, powerful monster who is really a handsome prince under an evil spell. Through her eventual love for him, the monster is freed from the spell, and they marry. The tale has been around for centuries and crops up around the world (folklorists Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson cite 179 stories from many cultures that deal with the theme of a monster as bridegroom). What sets Beauty apart from most fairy tales is the focus on a flawed, adult relationship, centering on male rage and the redeeming power of love. The old fairy tale has been simplified in this Disney version (curmudgeons would say deracinated) and used as the source of the animated feature film, several straight-to-video sequels, an ice dancing spectacle, and the current stage version, which cleaves closely to the movie script. Beauty's screen-to-stage adaptation lacks the dazzling reinvention that Julie Taymor brought to The Lion King, but it's purposeful and functional, a solid, satisfying tale.

The Playhouse production measures up to its illustrious antecedents. It's well-sung, well-acted, and well-produced, and it should let the Disney executives concerned about quality control rest easy. In its close adherence to the Broadway original, it's admirable but not entirely lovable, an efficient hotel of a show, something to check into comfortably but briefly. The Playhouse's artistic staff delivers four-star work. David Arisco's staging is skillful and clear, ably abetted by Barbara Flaten's muscular choreography. Costumer Mary Lynne Izzo has a field day with whimsical getups for the array of dancing furniture.

As Belle, Gwen Hollander is a plucky pragmatist, not the usual dreamy romantic. Hollander's singing is strong and articulated but lacks emotional textures; her vocals generate more light than heat. Still Hollander is a dynamic performer and energizes the show every time she makes an entrance. She's backed by an able supporting cast, with the hilarious Robert Rokicki as Gaston, Belle's relentless suitor, leading the list. Gaston is a narcissistic bully, so in love with himself that he doesn't notice that his intended bride can't stand him. We shall be the perfect pair, he shamelessly croons, rather like my thighs. Rokicki, not intimidated by shame, milks this role for every laugh he can get, nicely abetted by David Perez-Ribada as Gaston's dentally challenged sidekick, Lefou. Perez-Ribada, who has cropped up in a remarkable range of roles in local theaters, has found his niche as an inventive, knock-about comedian. The cast has a long list of fine featured performers. Bill Perlach makes a suave Lumiere, the French candelabra; Terrell Hardcastle is an amusing Cogsworth, the officious clock; Lourelene Snedeker adds warmth and beautiful vocal support as the kindly teapot, Mrs. Potts.

Beauty is an enormous undertaking, and achieving some kind of pace and drive with it is no small feat; it's something like getting a dirigible airborne. The Playhouse production takes some time to get going -- despite the individual performances and energetic staging, the first act on opening night tended to drag. Only when Tally Sessions as the Beast finished the first half with a soulful, stirring "If I Can't Love Her" did the show get fully aloft, picking up emotional power in the second half. Sessions is a riveting, dynamic stage presence, as he so ably demonstrated in the title role of Floyd Collins, a recent Playhouse hit about a man pinned in a cave he was exploring. Here, Sessions faces similar challenges -- he' s unrecognizable under the Beast's monstrous mask and costume. Despite this, Sessions gives the Beast great soul and emotional texture, and when the story finally focuses on a series of scenes between Belle and the Beast in the second act, Sessions and Hollander deliver the romantic goods. For all the whiz-bang production elements, what makes Beauty and the Beast click is what drives all drama, from Sophocles to Sex and the City -- the human heart. No surprise there.

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Ronald Mangravite

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