You might never guess that the Beauty and the Beast company now at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre has been on the road for well over a year. It is a musical of enchanted transformations, and that appears to apply to periodic self-renewals as well.
Of course, sacrifices have been made here and there to get all that magic into a few trucks and buses. A few of Broadway’s spiffier special effects are swallowed in blackouts, for instance, and the big storming of the castle at the end is pretty much boiled down to the hand-t-hand battle between the kind-hearted Beast and that mindless village bully, Gaston.
Yet what could be better suited to “The City That Reads” than Disney’s beloved French bookworm, Belle, in her perpetual search for escape, understanding and acceptance?
On opening night, one did not have to be under age 10 to fall for the plot’s many enchantments.
The fairy-tale musical made its own transformation from a 1991 Oscar-nominated animated film to Broadway stage spectacle in 1994. The movie’s songs by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman were supplemented by others written by Menken and Tim Rice.
Through all those changes it has remained the tale of spunky French misfit Belle, who spurns the affections of a he-man hunter and winds up as the prisoner of a cursed and selfish prince-turned-beast. He and his entire castle of servants will remain under that transforming spell until freed by a selfless demonstration of love. The castle’s talking clock, singing wardrobe closet, sassy candelabra and others conspire to turn the captive Belle into their agent for accomplishing that feat.
Director Rob Roth and Choreographer Matt West, both from the original Broadway production team, have wisely reassembled Set Designer Stanley A. Meyer and Lighting Designer Natasha Katz. They see that the fable plays out in a succession of storybook visions and effects framed by elaborate scrims, proscenium drops and smoky stage effects. The fanciful costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, also based on the Broadway originals, are almost worth the price of a ticket in themselves.
Brooke Quintana’s “reading” of Belle means that she smoothly makes the transition from aloof and retiring lass to assertive heroine long before the last petal falls. Quintana has a confident soprano voice that contains many of the same colors as Disney animated Belle. She makes the character’s new solo number, “Home,” register as more heartfelt than did the Broadway star.
As the Beast, Sam Hartley gathers credibility and power as he goes and is especially effective in his comic befuddlement at Belle’s resistance to his demands. His powerful tenor rings down the curtain on Act I with a smashing rendition of “If I Can’t Love Her” that had the whole audience pulling for his curse to be lifted.
Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek shows a firm grip on the humor of Gaston’s overweening vanity in his delightful spotlight number, “Me.” Then he leads the villagers in the dazzling clinking beer stein number, “Gaston,” turning it into the first real showstopper of the night.
Diminutive fall guy Matt DaSilva makes Lefou a comical foil for Gaston’s larger-than-life physicality. Stephanie Gray’s maternal understatement as Mrs. Potts croons the title anthem with sensitivity and welcomed restraint, while her talking-teacup son, Chip (played in rotation by Deandre Horner and Jake Jones) is a guaranteed scene-stealer.
Other standouts include the gracefully hammy Ryan N. Phillips as the wonderfully fussy Gallic candelabra, Lumière, and amusingly saucy Melissa Jones as that ticklish, ooh-la-la feather duster, Babette.
The excellent chorus gets its chance to show off in the extravagant “Be Our Guest” floorshow. Here even the plates and eating utensils take turns in the spotlight, singing and strutting and doing their whole spin cycle before our eyes like a culinary Follies Bergere. Mike Baskowski offers some emphatic acrobatic emphasis as a flying doormat.
Nothing about this show leaves one in the mood to carp or nitpick, but Act I takes longer than it should to engage us, and the orchestra led by Kevin Frances Finn sounds rather shrill at times.
Behind all the magic of the performances and the technical effects lies a timeless parable. It’s a testimony to the human imagination wherein tragedy is averted by someone who judges people on their acts and character instead of by their appearance. What more hopeful message could we find in these divisive times?
Running Time: About two hours and 40 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
Beauty and the Beast continues through May at the Hippodrome Theatre through May 15, 2016 at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call Charge-by-phone at (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.