Friday, February 17, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

The last time Broadway's Beauty and the Beast came to Portland, I was 21 years old, we had the cheapest seats we could find, and somehow it did not occur to me to wear my glasses to the performance. As a result, the stage was a big blur, and while I enjoyed the music, I told myself that the next time BATB was in town, I would have a better seat, darnit!

I was certain the show would be back in four years. It had been there in 1997, and there we were in 2001, and so, I assumed it would return in 2005. But alas, it was not to be.

In the meantime, I wore out the soundtrack. I loved it for its "new" songs, including the poignant, angsty If I Can't Love Her, sung by the Beast. I didn't really mind the differences between the musical's soundtrack and the film's (which I also loved to listen to). Aside from the new songs added to the musical, there were some lyric changes and some dialogue changes (like, in the 2002 DVD release that includes Human Again, Belle and the Beast read Romeo and Juliet; in the stage version they read King Arthur) but nothing story-changing or upsetting.

But there was one weird thing about that particular cast recording: the guy who played the Beast sounded just fine and beastly until... he would suddenly lapse into moments of pure, over-the-top enthusiasm, where he sounded like a raving lunatic.

Belle: Would you like to have dinner with me?

(That would be enough to make me flee the castle and run into a forest full of wolves, thank you very much.)

Despite those occasional moments, I still enjoyed the Broadway soundtrack. Home, sung by Belle, is another excellent song that shows us not only what Belle was feeling when she was first imprisoned, but her resilience and determination to not let it get the best of her. Me, a song sung by Gaston, is as absurd and hilarious as his proclamation in a later song that he eats five dozen eggs a day and is roughly the size of a barge. And End Duet/Transformation has some powerful lyrics as well. The new songs were a great supplement to the movie's story, and the truth is, sometimes when I watch the Disney film now, I find it a bit too short and condensed... as if something important is missing.

When I heard Beauty and the Beast was, at long last, returning to the stage in Portland this year, I knew I had to go. (Ten years is a long time to wait, as the Enchanted Objects will no doubt tell you.) On the night of the 16th, I had my ticket in hand as I excitedly approached the theater. Inside, there were two kiosks devoted to BATB merchandise. I did glance at the wares, but didn't bother with the exorbitant prices. Being a huge fan of the movie for twenty years, I already have plenty of that stuff. Besides, their plush Beasts looked like lionesque mops. I'm sorry, but there you are.

Granted, that is kind of what he looks like on stage.

Anyway, I had a great seat in the third row, not quite center. Sure, there was a lady's head in front of me (just a head. No body. I know, people nowadays!) but the good part was, I could see most everything and hear everything, too! (This is never a given at Portland's Keller Auditorium. When I went to see Cats I think "meow" was about the only sound that ever made it to the first-row balcony. Then again, what do I know, maybe that's all the Cats ever say?)

The show got off to a loud start, making a few people jump. It soon chilled, and I was delighted with all the singing, dancing, and special effects. A few of the songs I'd listened to many a time on the soundtrack had been axed from the production (No Matter What, a father-daughter song and Maison Des Lunes, in which Gaston and LeFou get their evil groove on, but these were never my favorite tunes anyway.) But a surprise came towards the end, when Belle belts out the moving A Change In Me (a song, I have since discovered, was added in the late 90s and I certainly must've heard it when I went in 2001, but as it was not on the CD, I'd forgotten about it.)

The actor who plays Gaston (Logan Denninghoff) was a big hit. He had some very fun and goofy facial expressions, but the best thing about him was his voice. He sounded very much like Richard White, who played Gaston in the film. At the climax of the show I went to, his microphone went out, and the actor must've noticed because he was projecting with all his might, but I doubt anyone past row ten could hear him. Somehow, though, that handicap made the scene (the battle on the castle tower) even more compelling (although perhaps if the Beast's mic had gone out instead, it would have been even moreso. Can you picture it? Poor, helpless, now-mute Beast vs. loud, raging Gaston?)

Emily Behny, as Belle, had a sweet, engaging smile and personality. Her voice is beautiful. The only problem was she looked so young, about 17, while the Beast/Prince looked much older. Kind of a Phantom of the Opera dynamic, I guess, but still a little bizarre. After he morphed into a human, I was left going: "Belle? You sure about this?"

The standout, for me, was Michael Haller as Lumiere. He was so engaging, he made me want to run up on stage and embrace him. Indeed, Lumiere is well-known as one of the biggest comics in the story (if you prefer wit over, say, conceit-filled buffoonery (Gaston, though I do love him), idiotic bumbling (LeFou), aw-shucks cuteness (Chip), or general wackiness (Maurice.)) Lumiere's accent and charisma are brought to life by Haller, and he got some of the biggest cheers during the curtain call.

Overall, I give the production a 9.5/10, and it is certainly the best I have ever seen (though I may be a little biased, loving the story so darn much.)

What a great night and a fabulous experience.

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