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'Beauty and the Beast' more than skin deep

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'Beauty and the Beast' more than skin deep (Photo courtesy of PTC/Magnus Stark)

BANGOR – Penobscot Theatre Company is inviting audiences to be their guests this holiday season as they bring to life a beloved musical version of a classic tale.

PTC’s production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” – with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice and book by Linda Woolverton – is directed and choreographed by Ethan Paulini, with music direction by Larrance Fingerhut. The show’s performances run through Dec. 30.

It’s a familiar story, but one that doesn’t suffer from that familiarity. While it’s a tale that most audiences already know, that understanding only serves to enhance the magic. PTC embraces that magic, creating a broad and beautiful spectacle that captures the imagination. The music is enchanting, the performances are enthralling and the experience is entertaining.

You almost certainly know the deal – a vain and spoiled young prince refuses to shelter a wandering woman. She turns out to be an enchantress who subsequently casts a spell on the prince, laying a curse upon him and his household that can only be broken through the power of true love.

Some years later, we meet Belle (Jazmin Gorsline). She’s the most beautiful woman in her village, but she’s also ostracized – both for the eccentricities of her father Maurice (Arthur Morison) and her own proclivity for books. Her beauty captures the attention of local lothario Gaston (Ira Kramer); he – along with his sidekick Lefou (Jennifer Shepard) – seeks to have her hand in marriage.

But when Maurice gets lost in the woods and winds up seeking shelter in the cursed castle, he discovers that the master of the house is now a huge and terrifying Beast (Cory Osborne). The Beast’s household staff consists of anthropomorphized objects – tightly-wound clock Cogsworth (Ben Layman) and clever candelabra Lumiere (Dominick Varney) foremost among them. Others include the feathery Babette (Brianne Beck), the operatic wardrobe Madame De La Grande Bouche (Elena DeSiervo Burns) and tender teapot Mrs. Potts (Annie Leonardi-Merchant) and her teacup son Chip (Cuthbert Steadman).

Belle tracks her father to the castle, only to find him taken prisoner. She offers herself up to take his place; a trade to which the Beast agrees. The staff sees this as one final chance to help their master find love, break the curse and salvage their humanity … but it isn’t going to be that easy.

What follows is a courtship of sorts as the Beast tries to find a way to connect to Belle, who finds herself drawn to the sensitivity she sees beneath the Beast’s bluster. But when Gaston and the rest of the townspeople learn what lives so near their idyllic village, the stage is set for a confrontation. Belle is caught in the middle, between her home and her new friends, at a loss for what to do.

But again – you probably know how it goes.

Taking on a story that so many people already know presents its own unique set of challenges. Finding a way to make the tale your own while still respecting the deeply beloved nature of the source material requires a light and delicate touch; audiences want to be rewarded with something new while still craving the familiar songs and story. Producing “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is far more difficult a task than you might expect.

A difficult task, to be sure – and one that PTC accomplishes with aplomb and flair to spare.

The emotional center of the show is the dynamic between Belle and the Beast; their relationship serves as the foundation upon which all other elements of the narrative are constructed. This production features strong performances in these vital roles – both as individuals and as a duo. Gorsline’s voice is a stunning instrument, soaring to unexpected heights with a rare sense of controlled power. Her presence is palpable, charismatic and magnetic. Osborne is a shaggy, careworn presence as the Beast; he has moments where he exudes menace, but it is the flashes of vulnerability that truly resonate. Those cracks in the veneer capture an empathetic charm that is quite lovely. The two together are a delight, blending elements of relationship complexity with a screwball comic sensibility.

They’re far from alone. Layman and Varney are delightful in their Odd Couple-esque banter; both men bring together strong vocals and finely-honed comedic timing to great effect. Kramer is a muscleheaded delight as Gaston, standing astride the line between idiocy and evil with a joyful effortlessness; narcissism has never been so fun. Shepard brings a bright energy to the silly sycophant Lefou, capering around the stage with abandon. Leonardi-Merchant’s Mrs. Potts is gentle and genial, as soothing as a cup of chamomile; Burns is broad and brassy and bold. Steadman and Morison are suitably sweet and goofy, respectively.

And of course, there is the ensemble, the collection of actors who bring the rest of this world into vivid focus. Danielle Barrett, Elisabeth Budd, Grace Livingston-Kramer, Noam Osher, Bob Potts, Nathan Reeves, Alex Ross, Aleksander Sayers and Michelle Weatherbee are the singing, dancing lifeblood of this production, bringing an all-important depth to the story being told.

There’s a line in this show referring to a “tale as old as time.” It’s a story that has been told and told and told again. Director/choreographer Paulini clearly grasps that truth; he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, choosing instead to let the familiar tale speak for itself. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t find kinetically engaging and exciting ways to tell the story; some of these production numbers are straight-up fire (one example of many - “Be Our Guest” is some joyful musical theater goodness). He just understands WHY people love the story and has worked accordingly.

Musically, Fingerhut and his orchestra – Amanda Cushman, Cliff Guthrie, Sonja Hannington, Carol Lander, Scott Rapaport, Marisa Solomon, Sophia Steadman and Lori Wingo – provide the pulse of the production. And there are some stunning musical moments throughout. Osborne’s Act I-closing rendition of “If I Can’t Love Her” will raise goosebumps and elicit tears. Leonardi-Merchant nails the iconic titular tune. Kramer and Shepard lead the way on the hilarious and rousing foot-stomper “Gaston.” Varney and company slay on the aforementioned “Be Our Guest.” And Gorslin shines pretty much every time she sings a note.

The production is visually sumptuous, with an ornate aesthetic that serves as a feast for the senses. The elaborate, intricate set comes courtesy of scenic designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay (who also did double duty as costume coordinators for the production). Scout Hough’s light plot shows once again her grasp of not just light but shadow; there are also a few specific effects that are particularly lovely. Jimmy Johansmeyer’s wig design adds a wonderful layer to the look of the show. Katie Guzzi’s sound design is of the usual high quality; Chez Cherry’s prop design is a solid fit as well.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is an ideal holiday offering. It is equal parts silly and sweet, packed with lovely songs sung beautifully. There’s an unabashed joy at work in this production – one that will prove unforgettable for audiences of all ages. 


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