There are few musical theater pleasures that can equal seeing a supremely talented cast under the guidance of a director who knows how to stage a production, from the grand sweep of crowd scenes to the tiny sparks hidden in smaller moments. Happily, this is all on display in an enthralling evening: Disney's Beauty and the Beast at the Beck Center.
Director Fred Sternfeld has assembled a kickass company of stellar performers, who turn this sturdy and family-friendly material (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashmen and Tim Rice, book by Linda Wolverton) into a lively and genuinely touching tribute to the humanity that goes more than skin deep. Based on the animated Disney movie about a selfish young prince who is put under a spell by a beggar woman seeking shelter, the stage version adds some depth and resonance to certain characters.
Natalie Green is lovely, fresh, and unaffected as Belle, the beauty who falls into the clutches of the Beast living in a mysterious castle in the woods. Green delivers her solos, "Home" and "A Change in Me," with clarity and a sure sense of the meaning behind the melody. And as for the Beast, suffice to say that if Dan Folino is performing in a musical somewhere, you are best advised to get in your car, jump on a bus, or hop on a pogo stick to get to the theater. Folino's Beast may be a bit shorter in stature than usual, but he wrings every tender and comedic nuance out of his book scenes. And when he sings, especially in "How Long Must This Go On?" and "If I Can't Love Her," his rich baritone paints a thoroughly involving emotional portrait.
This level of excellence is continued in the over-the-top role of the villainous Gaston, as Josh R. Noble combines a plastic Schwarzenegger grin with a Johnny Cash hairdo to ignite laughs merely with the turn of his head. When he sings his proposal to Belle, crooning, "We shall be the perfect pair/Rather like my thighs," every musical and comic note is hit with perfection. And Zac Hudak is a cringing lickspittle as Gaston's gofer, Lefou, getting knocked hither and yon in service to his master.
Also turning in fine work are the Beast's servants, who were morphed into household items in the same spell that condemned their boss. As Cogsworth and Lumiere (clock and candelabra, respectively) Douglas Collier and Larry Nehring make an amusing Laurel & Hardy duo. Aimee Collier is the teapot Mrs. Potts, and she brews a sweet rendition of the title song. Tracee Patterson is also a hoot as a pretentious chest of drawers.
Ably supported by Martin Cespedes' energetic musical staging and choreography, as well as a simple but entirely effective set by Ben Needham, director Sternfeld succeeds in creating a bountiful Beauty. Just as the Beast finally becomes the handsome prince again in a dazzling bit of stage trickery at the end, this production could transform you into a fan of Disney's familiar fare.