After a highly successful animated film, a long-running Broadway show, a live-action movie version, various spin-offs, and innumerable theme park, cruise ship, and school productions, the Disney Corporation version of the venerable 18th-century French tale of Beauty and the Beast (music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; book by Linda Woolverton) is a quintessentially well-established entertainment commodity. How do you freshen the familiar?
The Arlington Players’ (TAP) answer is to refashion the look of the show with extensive use of steampunk elements. Flown-in and projected gears and multiple mobile, often nonrepresentational, set pieces in David M. Moretti’s design replace the backdrop village scenes and stone castle of traditional productions. The flown-in hunting lodge for Gaston, festooned with antlers, is a particularly nice touch. The use of the wheeled set pieces, maneuvered by cast members, allows director Emily “EJ” Jonas to establish a cinematic flow from one scene to the next, eliminating breaks in the action for set changes. It looks good, and it works.
B & B is not a show that emphasizes acting subtlety. It is ultimately based on a cartoon, after all, and broad strokes of physical acting are called for. When we first see the Beast (Sterling C. Beard), he skulks across the stage Snidely Whiplash style, later adjusting his posture and stride to something more human as he deals with his anger issues and emerges from his emotional cage in the second act. This transformation is matched by the outstanding feature of Seth Sacher’s sound design, as the electronically enhanced initial rough growl of the Beast’s voice gives way to a more natural, mellow sound as the show progresses.
The vain, villainous muscle boy Gaston (Joseph Aquilina) – a nastier cousin of Miles Gloriosus from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – goes full bodybuilder poseur, dripping with excess testosterone. His sidekick, LeFou (a delightfully energetic Rachael Fine, in a pants role), is as body and soul enthusiastically subordinate as one could wish. The servants – especially the literally tightly wound, very British, Cogsworth (Walter Riddle), and the suave, very French, Lumiere (Alden Michels) – are near-perfect representations of the physicality of human personalities gradually transforming into objects. They sing and move very effectively, as well.
Belle is above all a singing role, and Robin Weiner’s clear, strong vocals are the most sparkling musical ornaments of the production. Belle’s bookish, independent personality – the show’s creators intended her to be a more liberated version of the typical Disney ingénue – fits better into TAP’s steampunk concept than in a traditional production, in which she can seem a 20th-century girl parachuted into an 18th-century village.
In the first act, the Beast is more a supporting than a lead character – Belle, Gaston, and the servants have more to do – but he comes into his own at the end of the act with the show’s most memorable tune, the power ballad “If I Can’t Love Her.” Beard nails the number, displaying the full force of the Beast’s melodramatically tortured soul. In the second act, Mrs. Potts (Anna Marquardt) gives a warm rendition of the title song.
B & B is a movement-oriented show, and Pauline Lamb’s choreography of complex production numbers like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” shines. “The Mob Song” was not only strikingly designed but, as the densely resentful Gaston leads popular violence against “the other,” represented by the Beast, had considerable contemporary resonance. The ensuing “Battle” is excitingly conceived and performed, with the final encounter between the Beast and Gaston a fine example of fight choreography. Between Lamb’s and Jonas’ work, the entire production moves smartly, and the cast, especially the dance ensemble, are great fun to watch.
Joan Lawrence’s costume design is something of a mixed bag, with steampunk-inspired costumes for some characters (Cogsworth and D’Arque come particularly to mind) and more traditional costumes sharing the stage. While Belle wears the traditional blue and white, Lawrence, in keeping with the concept of Belle’s character, gives her a sort of culotte in place of the usual skirt.
This is a big production in every respect. Not only the set but the 28-member cast fill the broad stage at the Thomas Jefferson Theatre. The sheer numbers of props and costumes far exceed what one would see in most community theater (and many professional) productions. Lighting and sound cues abound, as do repositionings of the set pieces. Stage manager Jon Davies and his assistants do a superb job of keeping everything moving like the well-oiled theatrical machine B & B is intended to be. I note on the WATCH website that while there are awards for many specific technical categories, there is no award for stage management. This production suggests that there should be.
B & B wants to be a love story, as the “odd girl” Belle and the gnarly Beast find a place for one another in their hearts. As love stories go, however, it is singularly lacking in erotic tension between the principals (well, it is a Disney product), to the point where their act two kiss feels pro forma. In a production seeking a new take on the story, it would have been interesting to have built some perceptible nonverbal erotic subtext between the two, making the culmination of the romance more fulfilling.
Even when a script makes a good deal of Belle’s independence and strength, the underlying B & B story remains intrinsically gendered. Is it even possible to conceive a version of the story in which a handsome, dashing young man who sings well encounters a hideous, difficult woman and sticks around to find the beauty in her soul? That is not a question with which this B & B need trouble itself; the production’s the thing, and TAP’s production is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying one.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Beauty and the Beast, presented by The Arlington Players, plays at the Thomas Jefferson Theatre, 125 South Old Glebe Road, Arlington VA, through September 29, 2019. For tickets, call (703) 549-1063 or go online.
Maurice, Bob Thompson; Chip, Itsuko Scoville; Babette, Erica Aquilina; Madame, Sarah Seider; D’Arque, Daniel Lakin; Silly Girls, Mel Gumina, Adrianna Marino, Rebecca Vander Veer; Dance Corps, Jessie Cobb, Jeffrey Hollands, Andrew Sese, Aidan Toth; Ensemble, Erika Friel, Keyla Niederstrasser, Jesse Nuell, Arnold Pascucci, Kelli Pierson, Rajni Rao, River Rogers, Michael Sandoval, Ruqayyah Strozier
Music Director, Paige Austin; Assistant Choreographer, Juwan Palmer; Assistant Stage Manager, Daniayla Stein; Scenic Artist, Dave M. Moretti; Prop Designer, Pauline Lamb; Lighting Designers, Jeff Auerbach and Kimberly Crago; Hair Designer, Laura Resetar; Makeup Designer, Caitlin Joyce; Master Carpenter, Skip Gresko; Sound Mixer, Chris Kagy