If you’ve ever seen any movie or TV installment of Beauty and the Beast — and you probably have, starting with the 1946 French film La Belle et la Bete — you can easily recall the story, the one about the uglified prince who learns to love with the help of his former captive maiden. There’s even a TV series of the same name, involving a hot New York police detective who’s fallen for a military recruit with beastly qualities thanks to secret experiments on his DNA.
But the real source material — an 18th-century French kids magazine that presented the story as a nursery rhyme — has infinitely more in common with the outstanding Beast currently mounted as part of the Broadway / San Diego season. Just as the printed word enables the imagination, so to does live performance — and this entry is slathered with imagery, from its vivid, giant sets to its hip, nuanced acting and tech. This show is an absolute marvel, with the length of its Civic Theatre run its sole drawback (it closes the evening of Nov. 29, so hurry).
By now, you can recite the story by heart: It centers on the beautiful, nerdy Belle, whose penchant for reading is her escape from boredom in her provincial French town, and the Beast, a prince operating under an evil enchantress’ spell. His curse will end only if he can find it in himself to love and be loved; if he fails, he and his household (transformed into figures as fantastical as he) will be doomed to live forever under the enchantress’ incantation.
A prisoner swap sees Belle a captive in the Beast’s dank castle. Things are pretty much at the mercy of the otherworld from there, until the couple’s changes of heart open the way for the forces of good. Of course, the Beast gets the girl.
But this yarn is propelled by layers of subtext almost too numerous to count. Belle’s father Maurice (Thomas Mothershed) takes on a life of his own as the village’s kooky inventor, as does Gaston (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek), the industrial-grade braggart who thinks the only way to Belle’s heart is through his brawn. The careworn Mrs. Potts (Stephanie Gray), her son Chip (alternately Kadence Dewards and Deandre Horner) and Lumiere (Ryan N. Phillips) are among the counterparts at the castle, held hostage in their fantasy comportments (a teapot, a cracked teacup and a candelabra, respectively).
And that’s where this show absolutely takes off. The cast’s culture of ensemble is among the most persuasive I’ve ever seen at a Niederlander Presentation outing, from the extras’ exchanges of catty glances to the ingratiating bits of business to the shimmering scene designs, which Stanley A. Meyer couldn’t have conceived in any more persuasive a spirit of collaboration with lighting chief Natasha Katz. Costumer Ann Hould-Ward’s color schemes are spot-on against those of the sets and the frontispiece, while director Rob Roth and choreographer Matt West siimply read each other’s minds.
Composer Alan Menken is no stranger to the Disney culture, and his music is accordingly in line in front of Tim Rice’s and the late Howard Ashman’s lyrics. John Petrafesa Jr.’s sound design and Michael Kosarin’s music supervision round out the complement, most evident in the outlandish “Be Our Guest” and gently refined title numbers.
Sam Hartley’s Beast and Brooke Quintana’s Belle rule the hour, their performances a microcosm of the chemistry on which the entire production thrives. This show almost couldn’t be better, and as with the original nursery rhyme, everybody involved has only their imaginations to thank. Positively outstanding piece.
This review is based on the opening-night production of Nov. 25. Beauty and the Beast runs through Nov. 29 at the Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street downtown. 619-570-1000, broadwaysd.com.