In the new Beauty and the Beast at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, it’s not just the accursed Beast and his castle of talking knickknacks that are caught in a magic spell of enchantment. So were lucky ticket-holders with tableside seats at the flawless opening-night performance on March 30th.
Word is that remaining tickets are already scarce for this 11-week run. Judging by the turnout for the premiere, all parents within driving distance of Howard County have plans to bring adorable little ones to this live stage presentation. And unlike many family shows, this one is not geared to please only the very young.
Disney’s fairy-tale musical made its own transformation from a 1991 Oscar-nominated cartoon feature to Broadway stage spectacle in 1994. The original score by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman was seamlessly supplemented with new songs by Menken and Tim Rice. More recently, the live show came full circle with a live-action movie musical currently in theaters.
Through all its changes, Beauty and the Beast has remained the tale of a spunky French book-lover named Belle, who doesn’t quite fit in with rural village life. She spurns the affections of a he-man hunter and winds up the prisoner of a selfish prince transformed by a curse into a scary beast. He and his entire castle of servants will remain bewitched until freed by a selfless demonstration of love.
Director-Choreographer Mark Minnick has brought together the ultimate cast. Not only do they all resemble their cartoon counterparts and assay their roles with easy professionalism — they also have ideal singing voices for both solo spots and choral harmonies. If only Producer Toby Orenstein could record this production as a cast album, it might become the most widely favored version of the score to date.
Powerful, barrel-chested singer Russell Sunday makes an epic return to Toby’s in a leading role as the Beast. Though hidden under a mountain of fur and latex, Sunday creates the illusion of a tormented animal padding through the shadows of the castle even before springing into the light with a primal roar.
Sunday’s nuanced reading of the character achieves a rich comic effect by pitting the prince’s needy masculine outbursts against the whines and tantrums of his inner child. But it is as a lonely, tortured mortal that Sunday shows his real maturity as an actor and a singer. In his expressive Act I curtain solo, “If I Can’t Love Her,” he shifts through tonal gears like a Le Mans driver, causing the entire audience to yearn for the end to his torment.
Making her Toby’s debut is a true gem of a discovery named Nicki Elledge. As Belle, Elledge comes off as the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Disney’s assertive heroine, often uncertain but always resolved. Her confident soprano not only benefits from breath control and pitch-perfect accuracy, it has a musical purity that is a pleasure to hear, especially on the heartfelt new solos “Home” and “Change in Me.”
As Gaston, David Jennings offers a delightful take on the one-dimensional humor of overweening masculine vanity. In his delightful spotlight number, “Me,” and later when he leads the villagers in the dazzling clinking beer stein number, “Gaston,” Jennings gets every big laugh out of the barnyard bully.
Toby’s multi-talented chameleon Jeffrey Shankle makes the cowering sidekick Lefou a comical foil for Gaston’s larger-than-life physicality. Showman extraordinaire Robert John Biedermann as Belle’s eccentric papa, Maurice, is always a joy to watch and hear.
Among the enchanted castle characters, Lynn Sharp-Spears delivers more than warm beverages as Mrs. Potts, the matronly teakettle. She also croons the title anthem with sensitivity and restraint, while her talking-teacup son, Chip (played on opening night by munchkin-faced Nathan Pham, who alternates in the role with Ethan Lee), is another underage Toby’s scene-stealer.
Helen Hayes Award-winner David James also steals all of his scenes as Cogsworth, the household timekeeper and strict rule-watcher. Elizabeth Rayca is more than amusingly saucy as that ticklish, ooh-la-la feather duster, Babette.
Other supporting cast standouts include the cheerfully effervescent Jeremy Scott Blaustein as everyone’s favorite Gallic candelabra, Lumière. His “Be Our Guest” novelty number gives the excellent full chorus its chance to show off in a culinary, Follies Bergere-style floorshow where even the plates and eating utensils take turns in the spotlight.
Set Designer David A. Hopkins and Lighting Designer Lynne Joslin see that the action plays out in a succession of storybook visions and effects framed by scrims, elaborate props and various smoky stage effects.
The cartoonish costumes adapted by Lawrence B. Munsey from the originals provoke the proper sense of whimsy and wonder.
The live musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and his live pit orchestra provide superb accompaniment to the singing and dancing.
Behind all the magic of the performances and effects, Beauty and the Beast remains a timeless parable. Doesn’t every young girl fancy herself a secret princess, and every guy know he’s just a misunderstood beast? This wonderful musical is a reminder that we all wish to be judged on our acts and character rather than on our appearance. It’s the perfect show for these divisive times.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Beauty and the Beast plays through June 11, 2017, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS, or purchase them through Ticketmaster.