The sequence of major opening events for Wilmington's new Humanities and Fine Arts Center at Cape Fear Community College continued with a sumptuous touring production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Based on a French fairy tale that is now over 250 years old, the musical – in turn derived from the earlier Disney animated film of the same name – has enjoyed worldwide success and played on Broadway for 13 years in over 5,000 performances.
This was the first opportunity to experience the capabilities of the Fine Arts Center in mounting theatre productions. The results were excellent. The stage machinery can produce a good deal of prop movement and action. Multiple curtains allow the space to be creatively divided. Lighting produced strong contrast of brightness and color. The pit is large enough to hold a full band of perhaps 25. And the amplification produces a good natural sound with no distortion.
The performance itself was strong. It was acted in a comedic and at times physical style that made it entertaining for viewers of any age. There were somersaults, cartwheels, and all manner of pratfalls. The entire cast of palace characters was spirited and often funny. Perhaps influenced by the cartoon figures of the animated film, character types were very broadly portrayed. On the other hand, Belle and Beast, as their relationship started to blossom, built a real feeling of empathy and gentleness.
Brooke Quintana was winning as Belle. From cold to tender with the Beast, comic in her rejections of Gaston, thoughtful with her books and courageously determined in setting off to save Beast, she showed a range of character that made her into more than a type. One could take issue with the silly parts of Beast's (Sam Hartley's) portrayal at the stage when he was still supposed to be intimidating. But like Belle, his character showed a range of mood and strong feeling as he came to realize his growing love. Lefou (Matt Dasilva), the acrobatic sidekick to Gaston, was great fun in his virtuosic antics. Gaston himself (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek) was funny as a self-important lunk. Still, when he raised his hand to Belle, one fully grasped who he was, and we were not surprised when his character became one who would set off to kill Beast.
Cogsworth the clock (Samuel Shurtleff), Lumiere the candelabra (Ryan Phillips), Mrs. Potts the teakettle (Stephanie Gray), and the rest of the palace crew were delightful in their frequent comic turns. (The on-again, off-again French accent added to this, perhaps unintentionally.) Their two energized group numbers, "Be Our Guest" and "Human Again," were among the highlights of the show.
The production brings together much of the original Broadway artistic team. Directed by Rob Roth, it was effective in every respect. The costumes (by Ann Hould-Ward) were filled with color and ornateness; they created a tableau that was a delight to the eye. The same was true for the sets (by Stanley Meyer), which were vibrantly decorated such that the stage picture was almost as much a draw as the action itself. One should also mention the choreography (by Matt West), which always created lively action among the characters.
Along with fine acting, the performance was musically effective. A reduced orchestra of eleven was used, directed by Kevin Francis Finn – this was about half the size of the Broadway instrumentation. But amplified from the pit and benefiting from the clear, bright acoustics of the hall, the sound was excellent. Rhythm was tight, especially noticeably in the physical antics where their sound effects needed to fit precisely with the movement on the stage. Contrariwise, there was affecting expression from the winds in the more lyrical songs. Like the actors, the band expressed a great deal of character.
While there were no standout singers among the cast, all of the singing was good, and at times it rose to high points of passion. This was true in Beast's song "If I Can't Love Her," at the peak of Belle's song "A Change in Me," and in "The Mob Song," both from Gaston and the chorus.
With all of this success, the performance did experience an unusual pair of hitches. It was interrupted less than ten minutes after the start by emergency alarms and lights. The building was evacuated, and it was over an hour before things resumed. Reports were that a smoke machine had activated the alarm systems. After the intermission, this happened again. The building was evacuated for a second time, though with a total interruption that was much shorter. Many people unfortunately left at this point, and the show finished to a much sparser audience. Those who stayed until the end of this unusual evening at nearly 11:30 p.m. offered the cast a well-deserved, vocally enthusiastic reception for a performance that seemed not to suffer at all from the disruptions. The show must go on – and indeed it did – splendidly.
This production will be presented again in the same venue on Tuesday, October 6. For details, see the sidebar.