Monday, July 21, 2014

Review of Musical Theatre West’s Beauty and the Beast at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California


There was a bit of mystery when Musical Theatre West announced its 2013-2014 season, as one of the shows had still not been announced when I bought my presale season tickets. It turns out that MTW was in negotiations to get the rights to produce Beauty and the Beast, and that Disney was reluctant to have the show playing a mere 13 miles from Disneyland. Apparently they worked out their differences, as Beauty and the Beast is the final show of the season, and I had the opportunity to see it this past Sunday.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

If you have kids under the age of 30 (or if you are under 30) you have probably seen Disney’s full-length animated movie from 1991, Beauty and the Beast. It is a neat movie full of catchy tunes, and it earned a passel of awards that year, including Oscars (it was up for Best Picture but did not win), Grammys and even a Golden Globe for Best Picture. Somebody go the bright idea to turn it into a stage musical, and it premiered on Broadway in 1994. Its run lasted 13 years with over 5400 performances, and it is pretty much a classic show at this point.

There is a good reason for this, as it is a neat story that is accompanied by very good music and lyrics. Of course the story loosely follows the old French fairy tale, but it was certainly churched up by music from Alan Menken (8 Oscars, 11 Grammys, 7 Golden Globes and a Tony), lyrics by Howard Ashman (2 Oscars and a Golden Globe) and Tim Rice (3 Oscars, 1 Grammys, and 3 Golden Globes), and a book by Long Beach’s own Linda Woolverton. These folks have had a hand in most every Disney musical that has come out over the past 20 years, as well as many of the most popular stage musicals, and they brought their A-game for Beauty and the Beast.

The basic plot is that a prince is turned into a beast due to his wicked ways, and everybody in his castle is turned into ordinary household objects. Along the way he kidnaps a spunky young woman named Belle and holds her in his castle. To regain his human form he has to somehow get Belle to fall in love with him. It could happen. By the way, if you are a fan of the movie you will notice that there are seven new songs that were written for the stage musical.

The Broadway version is a tough act to follow, as its sets and costumes were over-the-top and magnificent. Musical Theatre West rose to the challenge, and I have heard that this ended up being the most costly production they have ever done.

They got the look right. The rented sets were nice, though some of the backdrops were a bit wrinkly, and there were a few miscues where hanging elements were moved at the wrong time and then hurriedly put back into place. MTW regular Jean-Yves Tessier took care of the lighting, and he certainly seems to have his job figured out – everything was lit perfectly. The costumes (from Musical Theatre of Wichita, supposedly) are top shelf and were assembled under the supervision of Tiia Torchia and Shawn Adrian Decou. Of course Beast had to have incredible make-up, and Denice Paxton did good work there. He was actually more attractive as the Beast than as the Prince, if that makes any sense.

The sound was also very good. There was a 17-piece orchestra under the supervision of musical director Michael Borth, and I counted three keyboard players in the pit, which certainly helped with setting the mood. Unfortunately the musicians were uncredited in the program, and I have no idea if they were union or not. The sound engineering was generally good, with a few hitches along the way. Cogsworth had a wonky wireless transmitter that added a lot of noise to the mix (this was fixed after the intermission), and there were a few incidents where a ton of reverb was left in the signal chain for ordinary speaking parts which was distracting, at best.

All of the basic foundation was solid, but this is such a well-written show that its success hinges on the cast, and the performers (mostly equity) all delivered solid performances. Gwen Hollander earned the role of Belle (the Beauty) and rightly so. Her voice was beautiful and her timing and acting were impeccable. She has grace on the stage, belying her Broadway and touring experience, and it certainly did not hurt that she had played Belle previously.

Garrett Marshall played the Beast, and he rose above the limitations of having his face shrouded for most of the show. He has a strong singing and acting voice, and was able to portray emotion through his body language well. Both he and Christian Marriner (Gaston) have strong stage presence, which made it all the more obvious that this show had the typical Disney trait that male roles are favored. They got all of the good lines, and often times the Belle’s character was secondary and relied on the males in her life to make her complete.

The supporting cast was wonderful, with Brandon Armstrong as Cogsworth, Melina Komas as Babette, Doug Carfrae as Maurice and Robert Ramirez as Lefou. The standout performances were Michael Paternostro’s take on Lumiere and Cathy Newman as Mrs. Potts. Their acting and singing were fantastic, and they almost stole the show.

The ensemble turned in a solid performance, and they were very good dancers (especially the young man that played the bottle opener), and they made good use of Bill Burns’ choreography. Their vocals were well-timed and sounded good, with the exception of some drastic volume differences between them which became distracting on some of the bigger numbers. I loved the Silly Girls and that they used monsters / dancers to help move set elements on and off the stage.

All of this came together well for an almost Broadway-like experience. Musical Theatre West has outdone itself and Beauty and the beast is a good show with fine production values and a good cast, with a little something for everyone -- excitement for the kids and romance for the adults. If you have the chance you should get out and see it before it is gone, but leave the little kids at home with a sitter. This is a long show and they will be squirming in their seats a long time before the final curtain falls (it clocks in at 2 ½ hours, including the 15 minute intermission).

Beauty and the Beast will be playing at the Carpenter Center through July 27, and it has been a good seller for Musical Theatre West. There are still a few tickets left, so grab them while you can. And, be sure to check out their season ticket packages for the 2014-2015 season as they have a great package that includes Big Fish, South Pacific, Les Miserables and Singin’ in the Rain. You can’t beat the value!


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