Review: ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’ at Imagination Stage

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Imagination Stage serves up a charming and delightful holiday treat with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. This timeless 1994 Broadway musical was adapted for the stage from the Academy Award-winning film of the same name and features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton. With talented Director Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Imagination Stage and equally talented Music Director Deborah Jacobson at the helm, the performers provide a singing and dancing extravaganza that can’t miss.

Mrs. Potts and Madame de la Grande Bouche attempt to calm Belle. [L-R: Maggie Robertson, Jessica Lauren Ball, and Rachel Zampelli. Photo courtesy of Imagination Stage.
Mrs. Potts and Madame de la Grande Bouche attempt to calm Belle. [L-R: Maggie Robertson, Jessica Lauren Ball, and Rachel Zampelli. Photo courtesy of Imagination Stage.
The story begins with an old woman who comes upon a lavish castle where a handsome young prince lives. She begs to stay the night, but the Prince (Matthew Schleigh) is selfish and uncompassionate and turns her away because she does not fit his idea of beauty. She warns him not to be fooled by appearances and turns him into an ugly monster, the Beast (also Matthew Schleigh), and puts a rose in a bell jar. The only way to break the spell is for the Beast to learn to love and be loved in return before the last petal falls from the rose. As if that weren’t enough, the household staff gradually start turning into inanimate objects!

Several years later, in a nearby town, we meet a beautiful and intelligent young woman named Belle (Jessica Lauren Ball) and her father Maurice (Keith Richards), an eccentric inventor. The town bully and heartthrob, Gaston (Tiziano D’Affuso) admires Belle’s beauty but resents her wanderlust and her love of books. He proposes to her but she politely, yet firmly, rejects him.

When her father goes missing, Belle goes to look for him and winds up at the castle of the monster. She makes a deal that she will stay if her father goes free. Belle resists the Beast’s advances and refuses to eat.  However, when the Beast is not looking, she goes to the kitchen and the various household furnishings treat her to dinner and a show. When the Beast finds Belle in the forbidden wing where the rose is kept in a jar, they have a shoving match and Belle is able to escape. The Beast realizes that he may have lost his last chance to earn the love of another person and thereby break the spell. But, has he?

Imagination Stage’s production is somewhat abbreviated because it is geared towards kids—and the kid in all of us—however, it has all the wonder and excitement of the original Broadway show. It even has humorous inside references to other shows, such as Les Miserables.

Jessica Lauren Ball portrays Belle, which means “beauty” in French, and she definitely fills the bill! But, as Beauty and the Beast teaches us, it’s what’s inside that matters more. Ball has a lovely, clear, singing voice and dancing skills to match. She is amazing as she leads the cast in “Belle” describing her life and her neighbors’ disapproval. Her impeccable vocal dynamics are on display in the beautiful ballad “Home” where she longs to be with her father again. And, Ball’s acting skills are superb as her character undergoes a gradual and subtle transition to a better understanding of other people and the lives they live.

Matthew Schleigh plays the Prince who undergoes a transition in more ways than one, and plays the Beast with equal helpings of sadness and ferocity.  The Beast certainly needs anger management classes, but he is truly misunderstood and Schleigh brings that across to the audience in full measure.

After being rescued from the wolves, Belle treats Beast’s wounds. Could there be something there that wasn’t there before? [L-R: Jessica Lauren Ball and Matthew Schleigh.
After being rescued from the wolves, Belle treats Beast’s wounds. Could there be something there that wasn’t there before? [L-R: Jessica Lauren Ball and Matthew Schleigh.
As Gaston, Tiziano D’Affuso plays a man who fervently believes he is God’s gift to women and leaves us hoping that God kept the receipt! The handsome D’Affuso has a deep, rich singing voice and he is hilarious as he struts and preens and has no idea that Belle thinks Gaston is an idiot.

Another standout performer is Jobari Parker-Namdar as Lumiere, the maître d’ of the castle, whose acrobatic dancing is incredible. And David Landstrom as Gaston’s bumbling sidekick is also an amazing dancer.

Speaking of dancing, Pauline Grossman’s choreography is fabulous. There is an elegant minuet for “Beauty and the Beast”, a novelty dance for “Gaston” where the performers clank metal tankards, and fantastic acrobatic dancing in the quintessential production number, “Be Our Guest.”

Costume Designer Eric Abele had a challenging assignment which he completed in fine “fashion.” There are simple clothes for the townspeople and beautiful gowns for the inhabitants of the castle, but Abele outdoes himself with the transitions. For example, Lumiere is turning into a candelabra, so his wig lights up!

Scenic Designer Samina Vieth was also very effective. Constantly switching from the town to the castle to the woods and back again certainly presented a challenge, but our favorite scene was in the woods where the “wolves” would move the trees to evince the effect of forward motion.

Truly “a tale as old as time,” Disney’s Beauty and the Beast combines silliness with sensitivity and laughter with love. The singers are superb and the choreography is creative and fun. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is perfect for the holiday season, because it teaches us that if we look beyond the exterior and into the heart, we can find true happiness.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.

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Beauty and the Beast plays through January 15, 2017, at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the Box Office at (301) 280-1660 or purchase them online.

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.