MAGNA — Although it’s a play that I’ve enjoyed for years, the Empress Theatre showed me on Monday night why Beauty and the Beast isn’t merely a good musical. As I sat in the dark theater watching the library scene where Belle and the Beast realize they have something in common, I saw how brilliant Linda Woolverton‘s script is. In the scene, the Beast becomes incredibly human and Belle has a change of heart . . . all occurring in the subtext of a few lines of dialogue. The Empress’s production of Beauty and the Beast Jr. reminded me of how gorgeous this show is, not because of a bunch of fancy pyrotechnics, but because the limitations of an amateur theater’s budget forced the production team to concentrate on the story.
Director Andrea Fife had her hands full with a cast of 67 children and teenagers on the small Empress stage. Fife ensured that the children remained in character (even when they were “only” acting as an enchanted object) and understood their character’s purpose in the scene. The director also made some interesting directorial choices that I hadn’t seen before in Beauty and the Beast. For example, she had the Beast (Samuel Birge) not make eye contact with any other character for very long. This made him see disconnected from humanity, which was psychologically interesting. Moreover, when he finally started looking at characters (especially Belle as she tends his wounds at the beginning of the second act), it made me believe that the Beast was growing and making emotional connections with other characters.
Fife also designed the choreography for this production. The Empress stage is too small to have complex choreography with such a large cast. But that didn’t prevent it from being appropriate for the young performers and sometimes interesting to watch (such as in “Belle” and “Human Again”). My only major qualm with the directing is that I wish the wolves had growled and howled in the forest scenes. When the actors were all completely silent, it made it harder for me to feel that Maurice, and later Belle, were in danger.
The young actors in this cast were extremely focused in their performances. Melina Wrathall played Belle sweetly, especially as she agreed to stay in the castle in order to free her father. I also liked how Wrathall was uncomfortable and awkward around Gaston (played by Christopher Richardson) because it made her rejection of the marriage proposal work well. Evan Brown performed well as Lumiere, and his French accent was well practiced and never wavered. One standout among the cast was Sasha Nugter, who as the maid Babbette (turning into a feather duster) was always in “Vanna White mode,” which added an element of humor to an otherwise minor character. Finally, Travis Hymas was very fun as Gaston’s toady Lefou; Hymas always seemed to know how to suck up to Gaston.
However, I think that some performances could be improved. Many of the actors need to smile more as they perform, especially in “Gaston,” “Be Our Guest,” and the finale. These are happy songs! I want to see that happiness on actors’ faces as they sing. Also, I had trouble understanding some of the words in the play, and I hope that in future performances these actors speak and sing more clearly. I think this latter problem (along with some vocal issues) could have been fixed with a vigilant music director.
Many of the adults behind the scenes of this production deserve recognition for their hard work. The costumes for the show were nice, especially the title characters’ clothes as they danced to the song “Beauty and the Beast.” I also liked silverware and dishware costumes in “Be Our Guest,” which were simple but effective. The set, which was versatile and well utilized by Fife and her actors, was beautifully painted to look like stonework. A nice touch on the set was having the lit rose at upstage left during all of the castle scenes. Even when characters did not talk about or look at the rose, its mere presence helped me feel like the enchanted characters always had a sense of urgency as they worked to break the spell. (A team of 11 people are credited with the costumes and 12 people were credited with set construction and painting. It would be impractical to mention them all in the review.)
A quick perusal through the bios in the program of the Empress Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast Jr. shows many cast members were performing for the first time. They chose a great play for their introduction to theatre. (Who doesn’t love this Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice score?) All cast members, and the adults behind the scenes, worked hard on this show—and it shows. Their production reminded me why I love Beauty and the Beast so much and consider it one of the greatest musicals ever written.