Beauty & the Beast—I loved it! 1

Review by Danny Gaisin

Disclaimer:  This scribe grew up in Quebec and vaguely remembered a French fable “Belle et Bête” written by Gabrielle Villeneuve in the 18th century… never made the connection to the play cum cartoon cum stage musical 250 years later. Last night seated at the rear of Meadowvale Theatre next to Ursula & Les who were kind enough to reiterate the modern version, thus prepping me for what THEATRE UNLIMITED was about to offer.

Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice collaborated on a musical adaptation of the Disney interpretation that is rather far removed from my childhood recollection. But, it’s actually a more interesting & imaginative story. Director Richard Henry exhibits an amazing penchant for detail, and has certainly motivated his forty-odd cast members to fully explicate all aspects of their individual roles. The set is intricate and creative, the costumes are first-rate and the 12-piece orchestra led by Jan Stapleton is so talented as to perform faultlessly.

Every experienced critic mentally pigeon-holes his or her expectations and thus usually dulls the pencil when reviewing community theatre. This production is so professionally staged as to withstand the most analytical assessment. The production team of Michael Buchert & Stephen Froom have opened the purse-strings plus gathering a stage crew & management under Mary Lynn Merklinger that equal the quality expected from Shaw or Stratford.

The plot deals with an unconventional father and his attractive young daughter in a small town in Medieval France. Her rejected suitor is the town’s egotistical bully, and the community is somewhat uncomfortable with the father/daughter idiosyncrasies. A forest misventure leads to a castle housing a monstrously cursed prince whose redemption requires the true affection of a young woman.

Director Henry sets the scenario with a pre-plot narration that segues into the play itself. His choice for the lead is a bombshell… Elizabeth Amos is only seventeen years old. When I inquired about imparting such grave responsibility on one so youthful, he said that based on auditioning she certainly possessed an innocence mien but had the internal fortitude that the character needs and must project. She has already gleaned favorable critical commentary from this particular paper (“Sound of Music”, O.A.R. Oct. ’06) wherein I suggested she put a theatre career in her future & consider Sheridan or UTM’s Erindale. As Belle, she’s a triple threat…sings, dances and intuitively acts. Amos receives powerful support from Tony Barton as her somewhat weird father and Steve McMahon as the beast/prince. Barton gleans audience empathy much as does the Arvide Abernathy character in Guys and Dolls wishing “only good things” for granddaughter Sarah Brown!

McMahon’s persona has to morph from angered autocrat to a more humane and compassionate individual. He underscores the emotional hurdles with expression and definitive body language. It’s impressive to witness how significant just the inclination of one’s head can be to a thespian’s character. Belle’s homeboy adversary – Gaston- is played by Brent Wilkinson and his portrayal bears a strong resemblance to ‘Conrad Birdie’ in the 1960 roman-a-clef  musical that satirised the US Army’s drafting of Elvis. Even the pompadour and stances mimicked ‘the King’, and his entourage!

One of the support roles is that of the teapot – Mrs. Potts. Enid Stronach possesses what is probably the most trained and operatic voices in this production. Her range and control is diva-worthy of Verdi’s Gilda or Violetta! Kirk DiPalma and Brian Wray as the candlestick & clock impart the same comedic break and contribution to Beauty as did C3PO & R2D2 in ‘Star Wars’. Their portrayals impart strong support to the progress of the plot as well as being subtle reminders of their pre-curse identifiable personalities.

The chorus numbers, especially ‘Be Our Guest’ are creatively choreographed by Erin Noble and are executed with precision. The difficulty in synchronization wearing outlandish costumes must be quite a challenge. I drove home humming the title song about a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme. This scribe promises that – ♫ just as sure as the sun will rise ♪; everyone seeing this presentation will emerge as I did.  B & B is at Meadowvale until 29th, Can’t promise there’s still tickets!

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