By Lynn Venhaus
The fourth time is indeed the charm. Infused with extra Muny Magic, this “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” makes you believe in happily ever after.
Under the brilliant direction of John Tartaglia, this imaginatively staged, and elegantly crafted musical will make you laugh out loud and shed a tear, for it grabs your heart in the opening number “Belle” and never loosens its grip on your emotions until the final bow.
This beloved romantic fantasy has endured since the 18th century, first as a French fairy tale, then as a 1946 film by Jeanne Cocteau where an arrogant prince is cursed to spend his days as a hideous monster but has a chance to regain his humanity by earning a young woman’s love.
In 1991, modern audiences fell in love with Disney’s 30th animated feature that went on to make history as the first animated feature to be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. With its Academy Award-winning original score and touching title song, the script was tailor-made to be adapted into a stage musical, which happened in 1994, and played on Broadway for 13 more years. Screenplay writer Linda Woolverton is credited with the book and Tim Rice wrote additional lyrics, and the stage version has become a global sensation.
A bona fide classic with its iconic characters, lush score and engaging blend of romance, comedy, and drama, Muny audiences have enjoyed presentations in 2005 (the attendance record holder for nearly five years), 2010, and an outstanding one in 2015.
Because it’s a perennial family favorite, honestly this production didn’t have to be as good as it is – because we’d be enchanted anyway, and all those little girls who showed up in yellow gowns wouldn’t be disappointed.
Yet, this is an extraordinary effort. The best one to date under the stars is inspired because Tartaglia knows how to spark joy. An expert at finessing humorous moments with a flair for the dramatic, Tartaglia showcases his versatile talents as a director and his experience as a musical comedy performer. After all, he joined the Broadway company as Lumiere in 2006.
A true visionary, Tartaglia has brought out the whimsy, charm, sense of family, and genuine feelings in this Disney classic. On this stage before, he’s directed “Shrek,” “Matilda,” “Annie,” Disney’s “Tarzan,” “Wizard of Oz” and last year’s “Mary Poppins.”
A puppeteer and “Sesame Street” alumni, he’s best known as a creative and Tony-nominated star of the original Broadway cast of “Avenue Q.” He’s played memorable roles at The Muny, including the Genie in the pre-Broadway tryout of “Aladdin” in 2012, The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical” in 2014 and won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical as Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 2017.
He loves the Muny and the Muny loves him, and we are the richer for this mutual admiration society. His ability to create one-of-a-kind storytelling outdoors shines through, from the pep in the step of the ensemble to his dazzling use of pyrotechnics.
Incorporating a cast of 85 in super-sized renditions of the showstopper “Be Our Guest” and an amusing, rousing “Gaston,” the creative team is in sync and up to the challenge. Choreographer Patrick O’Neill and associate choreographer Bryan Thomas Hunt go for big and bold, and music director Ben Whiteley, who has held the Muny baton for all four “Beauty and the Beast” shows, brings out all the textures in the timeless songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
The performers have put their heart and soul into this show, from an acrobatic Tommy Bracco cavorting as buffoonish LeFou to Debby Lennon’s virtuoso vocals as excitable diva Madame de la Grande Bouche.
Ashley Blanchet is the epitome of a Disney Princess. As the lovable independent Belle, she is a savvy combination of sweet and spunky, heart-tugging in a glorious “Home” and the hopeful “A Change in Me.” The way she stands up for herself is refreshing.
As the imposing, bitter Beast, Ben Crawford’s rich, robust voice is one of the evening’s most pleasant surprises, and he brings a depth of yearning and regret to the role that’s palpable. Even under his involved make-up, you feel his change from a sullen prince cursed for being cavalier and haughty to someone trying to change for the better. His powerful “If I Can’t Love Her” brought down the house to close the first act.
Crawford has portrayed the legendary Phantom on Broadway, but his last role at the Muny hardly tipped us off to his capabilities, for he played the cruel and cocky Chuck in “Footloose” four years ago. He and Blanchet have a believable chemistry, carrying off the opposites attract tension and tenderness with touching sincerity.
The castle’s support staff provided crowd-pleasing antics, with the delightful duo of Kelvin Moon Lo as kind-hearted candelabra Lumiere and Eric Jordan Young as fussy butler-turned-mantel clock Cogsworth leading the pack.
While good-natured Ann Harada has the comedic chops and warmth to play motherly cook Mrs. Potts, her rendition of the Oscar-winning title song is shriller than satisfying as a major moment.
Michael Hobin is an adorable Chip, and Holly Ann Butler has fun as the saucy Babette. The group’s rendition of “Human Again” is a wistful beauty.
Broadway veteran Claybourne Elder is a standout as swaggering narcissist Gaston, emphasizing the blowhard’s ridiculous vanity while eventually turning into a spiteful, vicious bully, first targeting Belle’s eccentric dad Maurice (Harrison White). When Belle slapped him, the crowd erupted in applause.
A highly skilled visual design team has crafted a stunning castle and quaint Old-World village, with Belleville, Ill., native Ann Beyersdorfer’s opulent scenic design, Greg Emetaz’s expressive video design and Jason Lyons’ effective lighting design. The only thing that felt out of place was a jarring depiction of Gaston losing his footing in the climactic fight scene on screen.
Accenting the characters are Robin McGee’s luxurious and intricately embellished costume designs and Ashley Rae Callahan’s period wig designs. McGee, who grew up in Highland, Ill., designed the 2015 show, but didn’t rely on any previous outfits this time, and elevated the looks here with an accomplished team of seamstresses working overtime in the costume shop. Belle’s pillowy, shimmering ballgown is jaw-dropping.
Noteworthy are the puppet designs by Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck, especially in making the scary wolves’ eyes glow bright red as they roamed the woods.
This lavish production has all the elements to succeed as an unforgettable evening of entertainment, especially for a wide audience. Typically, the ‘children’s show’ introduces a new generation to the unique experience the Muny offers..
On Friday night, it appeared to win over many youngsters who remained rapt through the entire two acts – particularly one young man a few rows in front of me. His view was blocked by a rather large adult at curtain call, so he moved to the aisle to stand and cheer.
He made me smile wider, recalling watching other youths mesmerized over the years (reviewing since 2009). I’m one of those kids who first came with my grandmother, about 10 years old, awestruck by the grandeur. How many of us became forever fans that way?
The Muny triumphs once more with a deluxe and endearing “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” a heart-warming reminder that we get to connect again because of this 105-year St. Louis tradition. Don’t miss your chance to get sprinkled with pixie dust on a splendid summer evening.
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” runs from June 22 to 30 in Forest Park, nightly at 8:15 p.m. For more information, visit www.muny.org
Notes: Show sponsor Ameren and The Muny are promoting Ready Readers, a nonprofit supporting literacy, by collecting new and gently used children’s books, suitable for readers aged 12 and under. A table has been set up near the box office so that patrons can drop off books before the show.
For a deeper dive into the Disney Animation Renaissance, the documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is currently streaming on Disney +, as is the poignant documentary “Howard,” which honors the late lyricist Howard Ashman for his tremendous contributions to music. He died at age 40 from AIDS complications, in 1991.
Phillip Hamer Photography.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.