Just as sure as the sun will rise, “One More Productions” at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, are ringing in this holiday season by inviting audiences to experience a “Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme” with Disney’s “Beauty And The Beast”. The final show of their ground-breaking 15th Anniversary season, this multi-award winning adaptation of the studio’s Oscar Nominated 1991 blockbuster (–the first ever animated release to receive a “Best Picture” nod,) the book is by Linda Woolverton (adapted from her screenplay,) which itself is based on French Novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s 1741 romantic fable, “La Belle Et La Béte”. Highlighting the “Academy Award” and “Golden Globe” honored music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, OMP Co-Founder Damien Lorton serves as both Stage and Musical Director for this new staging—on top of conducting the seven piece orchestra (including a tympani, thus ensuring the music sounds befitting of a fairytale!) Likewise, the Choreography duties are shared by Heather Holt-Smith and Alan Collins (with additional Choreography by Lorton,) and features the eye-popping costumes from the National tour.
An ‘otherworldly’ prologue swiftly sets the stage for more venerable things to come, telling us of a cold-hearted (but vainly handsome) Prince, who one dark and stormy evening refused to give a tempest-tossed beggar-woman shelter, ridiculing her for being old and ugly. Revealing to him that she is, in reality, a powerful Enchantress, she punishes him for his arrogance and lack of compassion by turning him into a hideous Beast, and all his servants into inanimate objects related to their function in his Castle. She then vanishes—but not until leaving him with a single rose proclaiming that her curse can only be broken if he learns to love another–and earn their love in return—all this before his twenty-first year (at which time it will wither and die, leaving he and his servants to remain in their horrid states forever!) Next, we meet the “Beauty” of our story—a comely young lass named “Belle” who lives with her father “Maurice” (a somewhat eccentric Inventor in his own right,) in a simple village in the French countryside. Meeting the townsfolk, their opening, “Belle” is invested with awesome group harmony and formidable vocal power, as we learn that, although she’s admired for her stunning beauty, she’s also looked on by the townspeople as a bit ‘unusual’ given her penchant for reading books and dreaming of life outside the confines of her “Little town, full of little people…every day like the one before” (“What a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle” they chirp.)
When “Maurice” sets off to the local fair to display his new invention (which nobody can quite figure out what it is or what it’s purported to do,) he’s set upon by a pack of wolves as he traverses the thick, dark, and threatening woods on his way there. Seeking refuge in what is now “The Beast’s” castle, instead he finds himself imprisoned by its fearsome owner. When he fails to return home, “Belle” ventures out in search for him, only to find him locked in the castle dungeon (Did we mention “Maurice’s” dungeon ‘guards” are giant forks?) Begging for her father’s life, she agrees to take his place. Hoping that the girl is their chance to return to normal, the “Beast’s” servants–led by former Chief Steward, “Cogsworth” (now an elaborate “Mantle Clock”,) “Lumiére”–the ‘Valet’ having been transmogrified into a floor-length ‘flambeau’–complete with flaming hands; matronly “Mrs. Potts”—the resident Cook, (despite being an oversized Tea Pot,) and her small son, “Chip” (a tiny teacup,) all contrive to ‘help’ this unlikely pair to fall in love once and for all. Trouble is, the longer the servants remain in their bewitched state, the more they ‘become’ less and less who they were and more the inanimate objects they’ve been forced to embody. Complicating things even further is how the town’s local Bully—a ‘toxically masculine’ egomaniac named “Gaston” (aided by his loyal but none-too-bright sidekick “LaFou”,) has his sights set on having “Belle” for his wife.
Throughout the First Act we’re presented with the characters and the basic set-up of the plot—specifically that our titular protagonists DON’T like each other! “Above all, you must control your temper,” “Cogsworth” tries to warn his ‘beastly’ master; but when “Belle” ventures into a part of the Castle which she has been forbidden from entering (much to the fury of her churlish captor,) fearing for her life, she makes an ill-planned attempt at escaping, leaving the “Beast” to despair over his always inspiring fear and loathing in her much less any affection. Once the last notes of the Entr’acte are sounded, we find “Belle” in the thick of the woods—lost and in danger once she’s surrounded by the same menacing wolfpack her father faced earlier. Just when it looks like her fate has been sealed though, in charges the “Beast” who fends them off even at the cost of his being left worse for the wear while doing it. As “Belle” tends to his wounds, both sing their ‘inner-thoughts” with “Something There”, wherein they both begin to concede that they may have judged one another wrongly. (As a duet, it also illuminates both performer’s song interpretive abilities sublimely.) Ensuing a lethal skirmish with the townspeople led by “Gaston” (—not so much to win “Belle’s” favor as it is to punish his perceived ‘rival’,) the “Beast” is dealt what seems like a mortal wound that only true love can cure. At the same time, this is “Disney” so you know that one way or another, they’re all bound to experience their “Happily Ever…” well, you know how the rest goes (it is, as the song says, a ‘Tale as old as time’, after all!)
As has become something of his ‘Modus Operandi’, Lorton once again makes resourceful use of the entire auditorium, giving the goings-on a heightened, “three dimensional” feel while actually expanding the playing space. His insightful approach, as was articulated to his cast, was to bear in mind that these are living, breathing PEOPLE—not ‘Cartoon Characters’! Moreover, this production benefits magnificently from the understanding that less is often more—relying less on special effects or stage gimmicks and more on stellar performances, always with an eye toward authenticity—despite how fantastic the situations. Nowhere is this point more efficaciously driven home than during the crucial denouement when the “Beast” ‘transforms’ back into his previous persona, the “Prince”; it happens so nimbly that you may find yourselves wondering what just happened. True, the climactic battle between the townspeople, led by “Gaston” and the residents of the castle is fairly cinematic, but Lorton and company have done an exceptional job in pulling it off. Matching Lorton’s pace and imagination are Mr. Collins and Ms. Holt-Smith who shrewdly blend elements of Ballet and Modern Dance in with some excellent down home maneuvering that a seems at times to draw from such disparate sources as the polka, the mazurka and good ol’ square dancing. The ingenuity they’ve put into the blazing comedic intermezzo “Gaston” involves most of the cast and simmers with overflowing laughs and outstanding voices—not least of which being an over-ebullient trio of “Silly Girls” (played by Alyssa Twombly, Kady Lawson and Jessie Mays,) each totally hooked on our boy “Gaston”. The number progresses into an effervescent tavern ‘Roundelay’ which contains a clever stint of “hand-jive’ motions that involves several tankards of ale clinked together to a rhythmic beat, eventually escalating the action up to a full-on barroom melee set to music! If not exactly ‘elegant’ moves, they’re certainly enthusiastic ones like acrobatic leaps, a plethora of pirouettes and a flurry of high kicks. (Count this one the forthright, clear-cut Act One showstopper!)
Subsequently, the show’s emblematic hit, “Be Our Guest” may be slightly later in the proceedings than in the big-screen version but is nonetheless utterly worth the wait being given the very best treatment. Lifting spirits ahead of the more somber act break, it could even safely be added that this is where the Choreographic team has absolutely outdone themselves—staging it as a big, splashy Las Vegas extravaganza. Anything that showcases humongous plates and flatware, acting in concert with a capering pair of salt and pepper shakers, you just gotta love–and there’s even a sultry (if brief) tango between “Lumiere” and a saucy feather-duster named “Babette”! To top it off, there’s a band of high-stepping chorus-girls who carry out a series of vivacious dance phrases comprised of waltz-clogs, pirouettes, Grande-Arabesques and a few ‘Grander’ Promenades (–and in these get-ups that’s quite an accomplishment!) These, in preparation for their jaunty “Folies Bergere-esque” Kickline (“Such a good show!” Cogsworth exults at its conclusion and we’re all heartily inclined to agree.) Post intermission, the lilting eponymous number is nothing short of a superlative “Disney Princess” fantasy moment guaranteed to charm everyone’s most hidden inner-little girl, as our Hero and Heroine at last come to acknowledge that in spite of once being “Barely even friends,” it truly is “Bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong.” So too, the score reinstates “When We’re Human Again”—famously cut from the original run of the animated movie. Here it has been fully–and pleasingly, realized and has ditto been treated to a first-class execution as the collected denizens of the castle dare to dream: “We’ll be playin’ again, holiday’in again, and we’re prayin’ it’s ASAP! When we cast off this pall, we’ll stand straight, we’ll walk tall, when we’re all that we were–Thanks to him, thanks to her…”
Brittany Gerardi is “Belle”, whose general take on the role is that of an impish, but genial and ever patient girl, devoted to her father, but alienated by the more simplistic minds of all of those around her. Her mid-act “soliloquy” titled “Home” is incredibly delivered–given just the right touch of pathos, demonstrating in the process how exquisite Ms. Gerardi can express emotional lyrics like these. In Act Two, her benediction, “A Change In Me” (written specifically for Toni Braxton when she signed on to the Broadway production in 1998—four years after the show’s debut,) is comparably conveyed with sincerity and sensitivity accompanied by an equal injection of intensity, which particularly takes centerstage in the song’s ride-out. Then again, with every tune she’s been tasked with, Gerardi unleashes their emotive power and fills the auditorium with it (and in so doing makes all of them far more dynamic!) As the other half of this equation, Bryan Fraser is correspondingly superb as “The Beast”–boasting a rich, full-bodied baritone vocal tone which he stupendously manifests in what amounts to his First Act ‘One-Two’ punch: initially with “How Long Must This Go On?”, then with his Act closing “lament”, “If I Can’t Love Her”; through each, we discern how all of this “Beast’s” roaring and gnashing of fanged-teeth is merely a front for some fairly complex and agonizingly deep insecurities. (Accorded Fraser’s commendable—even operatic –handling, he consummately draws us in to this erstwhile Prince’s dark inner world: “Hopeless as my dream dies–as the time flies; Love, a lost illusion. Helpless, unforgiven, cold–and driven to this sad conclusion…”) There’s couldn’t be a more admirable or impactful way to end the first half as the houselights come back to full.
Of course, if ever there was a show bursting at the seams with terrifically ‘over the top’ characters it’s this one, and predominant among them is Nick Seigel as the ‘endlessly, wildly resourceful” (not to mention blatantly Narcissistic) “Gaston”! In possession of a dramatic and very capable vocal talent, he also allows traces of a subtle “Top 40 Pop” parlance into much of his singing—not least of which being his bouncy little ditty (sung in praise of, who else? Himself) called “God Knows It’s Me”. Through this humor-filled ode to one man’s pure, unadulterated ego, we are given a substantial taste of his own striking baritone fused in with some lively comic choreography too. At the other, somewhat murkier end of his character’s arc, he furnishes us with a selection of decidedly more sinister stanzas as part of “Maison De Lunes” as “Gaston’ and “LaFou” contact the head of the region’s “Lunatic Asylum” aiming to have “Belle’s father—already considered a downright crackpot by some in the town, committed there (especially now that he’s claiming his missing daughter is being held by a mysterious “Beast” they all were never heretofore aware of.) Afterwards, he engages in still more cunning intrigues by handily leading the fast-paced “Mob Song” whipping the town’s folk into a foaming frenzy of revenge directed squarely at this “Beast”: We’re not safe until he’s dead–he’ll come stalking us at night! Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite! He’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free, so it’s time to take some action boys! It’s time to FOLLOW ME!” Invigorating support is also supplied by Brayden Martino as the eternally amorous Candelabra “Lumiere” whose portrayal—would it be too cheesy to say ‘positively lights-up the stage’? Either way, Martino dazzlingly invests this popular character with an all-out abundance of zest and humor, proving to be of inestimable value to the overall undertakings given his contributions to “Be Our Guest” and “When We’re Human Again”; plus, he’s got the very best costume in a show teeming with astonishing costumes (look close and you’ll also notice his debonair “Beard” is made of melted candle wax!) Right alongside him is Peter Crisafulli–another familiar talent at “The Gem”, who returns as “Cogsworth”, the castle’s uber-nitpicky Major-Domo, now forced to bear the visage of an ostentatious Mantle Clock. Crisafulli steals his scenes in all the most uproarious ways, adding his adept singing abilities to such crowd-pleasing efforts as “Be Our Guest”, “Something There”, and “When We’re Human Again”, to say nothing of being a vital presence in the 11 O’Clock “Battle” segment when the castle is invaded.
Even more laudable support is provided by Duane Thomas as “Belle’s” ever supportive father “Maurice”. Thrillingly, Thomas brings way more to his part than just your standard absent-minded professor. He might not be the exact center of the action, but “Maurice” is the driving force behind much of it. His intro. “No Matter What”, a soothing duet betwixt father and daughter is a Gold-Medal worthy inclusion to the score in which he assures her “No matter what the pain, we’ve come this far…” Meanwhile, Beth Hansen adds yet another impeccable depiction to her distinguished list of successes at “The Gem” as “Mrs. Potts”. Beyond simply bestowing a kindly presence to such heftier numbers as “Be Our Guest” and the heartfelt reprise of “Home”, she masterfully interprets the iconic (and Oscar Winning) title song, “Beauty And The Beast”, in the midst of which this star-crossed ‘odd couple’ waltz dreamily to her luminously melodic refrain. (Admittedly, this is the essential interlude within the entire show and happily, thanks to the prodigious talents of Hansen, Fraser and Gerardi, all wonderfully coalesce to make it everything a dedicated Disney fan could desire—and better!)
Seven-year-old Siena Engle is also an abject delight as “Chip”—”Mrs. Pott’s” ‘little boy’ who has aptly been turned into a teacup. Considering how this too can be a tricky role for any young talent, stuck as she is through most of the goings-on behind a mobile tea cart that gets wheeled on and off as required, whether or not this can get a little wearing for her, Miss Engle doesn’t let it show—and she also exhibits some pretty impressive comic timing that belies her youthful years, to boot! Hunter Nelson also returns to “The Gem’s” footlights pursuant to his appearance in last summer’s “West Side Story” to stand out once more—this time as “Gaston’s” lack-witted Lackey “LaFou”. For all this character’s recent forays into tabloid controversy, Nelson refreshingly steers clear of it all to make his interpretation wholly unique and wholly his own, unfettered by prior incarnations, and is gratifyingly more believable for it. Think of him as more a slapstick-tinged mix of Shemp Howard” (of “Three Stooges” fame) or Huntz Hall (similarly renowned as the not-too-quick-on-the uptake “Sach” in the “Bowery Boys” film-series.) Not to be overlooked either is “Mrs. Claus” (whom, under her more familiar ‘stage name’ is another of “OMP’s” most accomplished leading ladies.) In this instance she makes her ‘larger than life’ mark as a deliciously flamboyant wardrobe—a onetime ‘Opera Diva’ we’re told (hence all that operatic trilling,) named “Madame De La Grande Bouche” (Literal translation: “Madame Bigmouth”.) Dispensing plenty of kitschy—but likeably infectious humor, she virtually incandesces with her parts in such group endeavors as “Be Our Guest” and “When We’re Human Again”, while one of the very best sight-gags in the entire show involves “Madame Bouche’s” restoration back to her ‘human’ condition whereupon she wears a splendid candy-apple red gown that’s sure to look familiar with those who recognize her from several editions of “One More Production’s” traditional seasonal outing, “The Holiday Gem”.
The haunting scenic design concocted by Wally Huntoon for this escapade to play out against, favors interchangeable flats painted (in the beginning) with sketches of fierce looking trees which also line the proscenium as well! Once into the story, the most remarkable thing about them are their evolving ‘look’ which, for the most part forsakes the animated source material, reflecting rather, old and faded children’s picture-book illustrations recalled from half-forgotten memories of the libraries of our earlier years. As bold and eclectic as the sets are however, it would not at all be out of line to assert that they categorically pale in comparison to the costumes coordinated by Costume Designer Luis Cornejo. In fact, these alone could be worth the price of admission! Little wonder that when they were unveiled as part-and-parcel of the Broadway premiere back in 1994, they practically caused a revolution in theatrical costume designs—incorporating baroque fashion with surreal exaggerations of utilitarian household or kitchen utensils (Imagine something like Salvador Dali had he worked for Kitchenaid!) Were that not enough, each one works in perfect accord with the amazing character makeup and prosthetics–gratis the extraordinary work of Make-up Designers Scott Lohse, Brian Bolanos and Jim (Gio) Harrell, which cap-off the entire picture (–and picture-worthy they all most definitely are!)
Why ‘seek adventure in the great wide somewhere’ when it’s right there at “The Gem Theatre”? Indeed, now’s the time to fill your holiday with enchantment with this thoroughly magical musical! Having opened on Saturday, November 30th, “Beauty And The Beast” will play through Sunday, December 22nd, 2019, at “The Gem Theatre” located at: 12852 on historic Main Street in Garden Grove CA. Showtimes are: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. (Please Note: there will be an additional 2:00 PM show on Saturday, December 7th and December 14th.) Tickets may be obtained by logging onto: www.onemoreproductions.com , or by phone at: (714) 741-9550 X 221. Discounted tickets are available for Seniors (60 years old and over,) and Children (12 years old and under,) while special “Student Rush” Tickets are also available for Thursday and Friday performances, and may be purchased in person thirty minutes in advance of curtain-time with a valid student I.D.
Production Stills By Ron Lyon, Courtesy Of Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Shoko Araki, Ron Lyon, Heather Holt-Smith, Alan Collins And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Gem Theatre” and “One More Productions” 2019 Staging Of Disney’s “Beauty And The Beast” For Making This Story Possible