A well-worn "tale as old as time" brought all of its truisms and talents to the Clowes Memorial Hall stage on Tuesday night. It was opening night for the NETworks production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which yet runs Oct. 13 through 16 here. This latest nationally-touring take on the show jump-starts both the Broadway in Indianapolis 2011-12 season and the source material itself.
It all starts and ends with Belle and Beast, of course. Everything rides on these performances. Thankfully, talents Dane Agostinis and Emily Behny—an Indiana girl making a harmonious homecoming—are, by definition and by action, leads. (See our October issue's profile of Behny here.) Mrs. Potts may sing, "Both a little scared, neither one prepared," but that does not apply to the persons behind these characters. Agostinis, as Beast, brings a stirring bellow to Act I's closer, "If I Can't Love Her." He also more than capably faces the (literally) hefty task of both acting from behind a headdress/mask and performing stunts in the crescendoing fight scene with Gaston, Belle's brutish gentleman caller.
Similarly, Behny harbors a bounty of talent—her voice, whether speaking or singing, always arrives with a pleasing lilt and winsome, even vivacious appeal. What's more, she enunciates strikingly well. Behny's Belle possesses a core grace throughout the show that has her gaining in spirit and strength to combat wrongs as the story marches on. Her performance peaks as she nails the final glory note of her one truly belting solo, "A Change in Me." She and Agostinis are aided by a bevy of clever supporting players: Logan Denninghoff, whose oversize facial gestures and biceps make Gaston larger than life; Michael Haller, whose pyrotechnic fists as Lumiere are matched by a red-hot wit; Benjamin Lovell, who plays the historically stuffy Cogsworth as a corny-comic uncle (if not grandfather) clock; and Jen Bechter as (deep breath) Madame de la Grande Bouche, the lady bureau who arrives at the right time to inject some much needed hot air. Likewise, Gaston's sidekick Lefou (Andrew Kruep) and the Enchanted Carpet (David Baur, a former junior Olympian trampoline champ) bring some gymnastic gusto to a few songs showcasing their bendy gifts.
It all starts and ends with Belle and Beast, of course. Thankfully, talents Dane Agostinis and Emily Behny—an Indiana girl making a harmonious homecoming—are, by definition and by action, leads.
The iconic musical numbers more than hit the marks. Gaston's eponymous tribute to himself saw the townspeople jump in for a clever, intricate dance that had the performers clinking each other's double-fisted beer steins. Lumiere's showy "Be Our Guest" puts a fresh twist on the version so well known on stage and screen, with funny fold-up plates held by leggy damsels and Mrs. Potts (Julia Louise Hosack) gamely making a glam cameo—as glam as a junk-in-the-trunk "female" teapot can be, of course. Her "Beauty and the Beast" ballad entices even as it drums up the specter of Angela Lansbury, as perhaps it can only. (The ballroom dance does seem abbreviated.) Then the gang-sing "The Mob Song"—"Kill the beast!"—had this 30-year-old reviewer's heart rate speeding up as the townspeople overran Beast's castle; imagine, then, how it all looked to the kids on hand.
Other striking elements of this iteration included musical director and conductor Carolyn Violi's orchestra, which was always affecting, never overwhelming in its pretty playing. The versatile set pieces were something short of amazing at times in how various "enchanted objects" (chorus members) unfolded and spun them around, even in the midst of a scene, to show the audience a different angle as the action ramped up to its denouement.
At times, bits of physical comedy seemingly tacked on to the show's dialogue had it descending to Monty Python slapstick territory. Perhaps this was director Rob Roth's intent, and it seemed to appeal overwhelmingly to the young children in the audience (and they were legion). Still, it was jarring at least the first of three notable times in how it brought the Beast out of his dark, glaring character that audiences are used to. Maybe this was the Disney-fied effect: Beast, meet Goofy.
Having not seen this stage musical before, I was worried that the penultimate scene depicting (spoiler alert) Beast's transformation back to human form would be handled in a hokey way. Instead, that pinnacle of the show is handled in a manner that is technically smart, fairly sleek, and, ultimately, theatrical. This is all we ask.
NETworks presents Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Clowes Memorial Hall, Butler University, 4602 Sunset Ave., 800-793-7469. broadwayacrossamerica.com/Indianapolis
Photo by Joan Marcus