Last Friday night, I led an expedition to see the new production of Beauty and the Beast at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale. (By "led", I mean I paid for the tickets, so they let me come too). It was Denise and I, my daughter and her boyfriend, and my niece (the little showkid).
Now, this is another one of those shows I wouldn't have chosen myself. For one thing, it's a Disney show, and I pretty much consider Disney to be The Evil Empire. (Hence my love for the obscure classic "Working for the Mouse" by my old friends from the band This Island Earth.) My childhood was tortured by Disney, who thought a great "family film" consisted of inventing a cute character, getting you to love them, then torturing them for an hour and forty-five minutes before throwing them a happy ending in the last quarter hour. Stephen King once commented that he thought the old Disney films were much more horrific and terrifying than anything he's ever written, and I tend to agree with him.
But as I've pointed out before, my daughter has different taste in musicals than I do. This child (young woman, now, really), who loves the goriest, most grisly horror films imaginable (and who once made fun of a date who got a little queasy during a bloody cannibal film she dragged him too), the girl who loves to joke (I hope?) about selling orphan meat on the black market, has a secret. And that secret is she's a total sucker for a happy ending. So when I told her that The CM playhouse was doing a production of Beauty and the Beast, she immediately asked me to get tickets.
Now Denise and I were just at CM a few weeks back, where we saw a pretty entertaining production of Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical, so I was pretty confident that they'd do a decent job with the show.
And I figured I'd better get tickets early, as I suspected this would be a pretty popular production, especially considering the popularity of the recent Emma Watson film. As it turned out, I was right. We still wound up towards the back of the theater (although we were at least in the middle section this time), and with the exception some of the VIP tables in the back, the show looked to be a sellout.
The bottom line: As I hoped, they did a really good job with this one. Even an old Disney skeptic like myself found the play really enjoyable. I'll get my few meager criticisms out of the way first, but all in all, they're pretty minimal. They are:
1. There were still a few minor sound problems, but nowhere near as many as during Jekyll and Hyde. All of the actors could be heard throughout the night, both when they were speaking and when they were singing. The only problem in this area is that some of the mics cut in and out occasionally, especially during the hectic fight scene at the end. It might have helped that I deliberately got tickets on the right side of the center this time -- it could be that the left side is more problematic acoustically. Or maybe they just worked out some of the issues. In any event, the mic situation didn't really detract from the enjoyment of the show;
2. During the climax, the staging is such that you really don't get the feel for the power of The Beast. Gaston kind of kicks the crap out of him for most of their brief fight, which was a little upsetting. And,
3. It kind of looked like Maurice, and later Belle and The Beast, were being attacked in the forest by feral bunnies instead of wolves. But this was sort of funny, and it actually added a little to the entertainment of the show.
Now I'll talk about what I liked, and it pretty much comes down to everything else. The cast is universally strong. Katie Ferretti, who did a nice job as Emma in Jekyll and Hyde, really nails it here as Belle. She walks the line perfectly between being borderline harsh when she's dealing with Gaston, and later with The Beast while he's still being ... well, beastly ... and being a strong and likable heroine who is easy to root for throughout. Her voice is consistently lovely, and she does everything she needs to do to carry the show as its main character. David DiMarzo as The Beast starts the evening as kind of a one-note character, but that's largely a function of the script. As the night goes on, however, you begin to see the real person inside of the animal, and in the end, he comes off as hugely sympathetic. As for Corey Martin, he is note-perfect as the boorish bully Gaston. He's quite funny, and does a fine job, along with the ensemble cast, of carrying off one of the show's best numbers, "Gaston". (I still think that his trio of female admirers should be called The Gastonettes, instead of simply "Silly Girls", though).
No disrespect to any of the other cast members, who again were all quite good, but I particularly enjoyed Emily Nadler as Mrs. Potts. She gave the character a benign and reassuring presence, and did an excellent job of singing the play's fine title song, "Beauty and Beast". And I'd be remiss if I didn't also give some special love to Steven Cottonaro as Lumiere, who was a clear favorite in my little party -- my wife, daughter and niece all singled him out for special praise.
I also want to say that for a little local theater, this production did a great job with some of the larger ensemble numbers, especially "Be Our Guest". The scene changes during the song were impressive, and all of the various dancing cups and other enchanted objects did a fantastic job.
All in all, this presentation really won me over, and everyone else in my little party enjoyed it as well. The production is running through December 23, and as you'd probably expect, it's definitely a show for the whole family. I'm not sure how many tickets are left, but I'll bet you can find some. I'd recommend it highly as holiday-friendly entertainment. The website for the theater is www.cmpac.com.