Staging Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for live theater is a massive undertaking. Along with the usual lavish musical production numbers, this story calls for magical spells, onstage transformations, aerial effects, video projections, and not one, but two savage wolf pack attacks. Just getting this unwieldy thing up onstage, with live actors and no CGI effects, is not a task for the faint-hearted. The trick is to make all of these intricate components work without overwhelming the love story at the show’s heart.
The ambitious new production at Cabrillo Stage works hard to maintain this delicate balance, and is reasonably successful. There were bound to be a few technical difficulties on opening night, but that’s the great thing about live theater: every new performance is a fresh start!
The good news is director-choreographer Janie Scott’s production is a trio of strong performances at its heart—Mathew Taylor as Beast, Emily Mairi Marsilia as Belle, and Carmichael James Blankenship as the narcissistic villain, Gaston. There are many other noteworthy performers in the ensemble, but it’s up to these three to sell the story. If they don’t, all the effects in the world won’t help. But if they do—as they did with gusto on opening night—then the glitches don’t matter so much.
As the title implies, this is the Disney version of the 300-year-old fairy tale, based on the studio’s hit 1991 cartoon feature. In Linda Woolverton’s book (she also scripted the movie), Belle is considered “odd” in her French country village for reading books and not being married. Gaston, a preening, muscle-bound lout, means to wed her because she’s “the prettiest girl in the village”—while keeping up his dalliances with the other fawning village girls.
Vain, pompous, belligerent Gaston is a horrible character, but a great role. And Blankenship is perfect, with his outsized, comic stage presence and powerhouse singing voice.
Belle adores her sweet-natured father, Maurice (Richard Dwyer), a somewhat dotty inventor who gets lost in the forest and stumbles into the castle occupied by Beast. In this version, he does not steal a rose; Beast throws him in the dungeon for no particular reason, and Belle braves the forest to get him released—which Beast only agrees to if she takes her father’s place.
The castle is full of talking, singing, and dancing objects that used to be human servants, changed into tableware and furniture in the same witch’s curse that turned their selfish young prince into Beast (the prologue that opens the show). Only if Beast falls in love with a woman and earns her love back will they all regain their human forms, so they’re constantly encouraging the at-first-reluctant couple.
Marsilia (last seen at CS as Mary Poppins) plays Belle as an independent young spinster; she has a beautiful voice and her emotions are true. But Taylor’s ferocious Beast anchors the emotional story, spitting out his lines with husky menace, or unexpectedly hilarious when throwing a hissy-fit. He matures into rumbling nobility with a couple of powerful solos.
Nick Rodrigues is completely charming as chipper candlestick Lumiere, especially leading the ensemble in the rousing “Be Our Guest” production number. Jordan Pierini as fussy Cogsworth, the Clock, and Angela Cesena as the operatic Wardrobe are also quite good. Mike Saenz is a funny, apparently boneless physical clown as LeFou, Gaston’s toady, and chief punching-bag.
Most opening-night glitches were from mics being smacked during the action, and some sketchy wire work. I guess the idea of using wires during the second wolf attack is so Beast, in his fury, can hurl one across the stage, but it’s a cartoony idea that doesn’t translate well; the choreography might work better without wires. On the other hand, while the audience held its collective breath in the finale, with Beast spinning precariously above the stage, his transformation was triumphant. (Or not, if, like me, you don’t want soulful Beast to turn back into the handsome prince.)
Overall, credits are up to the usual high CS standards, with special kudos to Scenic Designer Skip Epperson’s multitasking revolving castle, and the lovely rose-bordered title scrim, like a page out of an illuminated manuscript.
The Cabrillo Stage production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast plays through August 13 at the Crocker Theater, Cabrillo College. For ticket info, call 831 479-6154, or visit cabrillostage.com