Theatre Review – Dancap Productions/Disney Productions’ Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and The Beast is a thoroughly enjoyable production for all ages. First of all, there is the gorgeous score by composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Secondly, there are the colourful storybook sets and shape-shifting costumes by Stanley A. Meyer and Ann Hould-Ward respectively. Third is the lively production numbers choreographed by Matt West. The sparkling direction is by Rob Roth. Last is the enthusiastic cast. Yes, I know they are non-equity, but they bring a freshness to the show.

B&TB began as a popular Disney move in 1991 that actually was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Three numbers were nominated for Best Song with “Beauty and The Beast” winning the award. The show was developed for a Broadway musical by the original book writer Linda Woolverton. It premiered in 1994 and ran until 1999. In other words, and in the lingo of the trade, the show has creds.

Emily Behny as Belle dominates the show. She has a strong voice with crystal clear diction. Her sunny personality bathes the stage in a warm glow. Behny also makes every dramatic moment count for something. Dane Agostinis plays the Beast like the Phantom of the Opera, but it works. He certainly finds the poignancy in his big first act closer “If I can’t love her”.

Of the rest of the main cast, Matt Farcher’s Gaston is irritatingly arrogant, Michael Haller’s French-accented Lumiere is deliciously droll, James May’s Cogworth is suitably fussbudget, while William A. Martin is Belle’s loving father Maurice. Jimmy Larkin plays Lefou, the show’s buffoon. As Gaston’s toady, he’s a little too slapstick for my tastes, but you could hear children laughing all over the theatre at his physical comedy antics.

The women can all sing. Julia Louise Hosack is a warmly sympathetic Mrs. Potts, Jessica Lorion is the sexy siren Babette, while Jen Bechter’s imposing Madame de la Grande Bouche shows the opera singer she was.

Besides the wonderful musical score, the delight of the show is its look. When the Prince rejected an old beggar woman, he suffered the curse that turned him into the Beast and his household staff into objects. Cogsworth is a clock, Lumiere’s hands are two candlesticks, while Mrs. Potts is a teapot and her son Chip a teacup. The big production number “Be Our Guest” is performed by eye-catching cutlery, plates, a tablecloth and napkins.

My one complaint is the lack of diction on the part of the ensemble and in some of the characters like Cogsworth. That is why Behny’s shines above the rest with her radiant Belle.

Dancap/Disney’ Beauty and the Beast, music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, (starring Emily Behny and Dane Agostinis, directed by Rob Roth), Four Seasons Centre, Jul. 3 to 22, 2012.

Theatre Review – Dancap’s West Side Story

The time has come to acknowledge that West Side Story is a dated museum piece.

The production currently playing in town is the touring version of the acclaimed 2009 Broadway revival. The New York critics went gaga. One can only assume that the show is such a sacred cow, that tunnel vision sets in.

In this version, the Puerto Rican’s speak Spanish to each other, and even some of their lyrics are translated into Spanish. I did find the constant switch between the languages distracting, a little Spanish here, a little English there, without rhyme or reason. Apparently original librettist Arthur Laurents worked on this version himself before his death at age 93 last year. His direction has been faithfully recreated by David Saint. Among other innovations is a new ending which is absolutely illogical. One of the Jets places Maria’s shawl on her shoulders and she grabs his hands. Go figure…

We’re just too cynical. The Somewhere ballet (“There’s a place for us…”) just seems too Pollyannaish, and now that Anybodys (Alexandra Frohlinger) is singing it, almost embarrassingly maudlin. In the original production, the lyrics were performed by an offstage soprano which made the number more ethereal. I even remember the singer’s name – Reri Grist – who went on to an international opera career. The choreography for this sequence now seems absolutely inept. You could hear suppressed giggles coming from all sides of the audience.

The real datedness comes from the fact that all professional stagings must use Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. Since the choreographer/director died in 1998, audiences will have to wait until 2048 for a completely revisionist approach – that is, when the copyright ends. If Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seems timeless, it is because every new production can start from scratch. Joey McKneely has, I’m sure, become a rich man going around the world staging Robbins’ choreography.

The one place where a professional production can make a difference, is in the sets and costumes. This revival goes for the base minimum, and as a result, looks cheap, putting on stage that which is required, like the fire escape. I really got irritated when I saw Anita’s purple dress with the pink petticoats in the dance at the gym sequence. Anita is always in a purple dress at the gym. James Youmans and David C. Woolard, respectively, show no imagination at all.

There is no getting around the fact that these New York gang members are basically portrayed by chorus boys. Good dancers and singers, but not exactly scary. As for the lack of hard core swear words, that could have been changed over the decades since 1957. Once again, a museum piece.

Which brings us to the leads. Again, they can sing and dance, but one wonders what were the casting crew thinking? It sure wasn’t sing and dance and look the part. Ross Lekites as Tony has a passionate sob in his voice, but has the charisma of a wet noodle/choir boy. Evy Ortiz is sweet, but that’s not enough. And the chemistry between them is nada. The second leads fare better. Michelle Aravena makes a great Anita, but she garbles her words (at least in English) and seems to be playing the stereotype. German Santiago’s Bernardo is probably the best of the bunch. At least he’s got some fire. Drew Foster’s Riff plays it all on one note.

I think this production (meaning the Jerome Robbins’ production) should be retired. If anyone wants to see it, rent the movie.

West Side Story, Dancap Productions, (starring Ross Lekites, Evy Ortiz, Michelle Aravena, German Santiago and Drew Foster, directed by David Saint/Arthur Laurents), Toronto Centre for the Arts, May 8 to Jun. 3, 2012