Saturday, November 20, 2010

Last year my son performed in his first grade school play: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr. He learned firsthand about theatre and how important the supporting cast can be to a production. He played the Menu in the “Be Our Guest” spectacle. (He was adorable, of course). Anyways, when we heard “Beauty and the Beast” was coming to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, I was looking forward to watching his comparison of his grade school experience to that of the professional touring show.

We met for a pre show dinner at Maggiano’s in South Coast Plaza. The decor of casual elegance, the friendly vibe of the place, along with good food and family conversation took me out of my long work-through-lunch stress mode and got me relaxed and ready for a wonderful evening of theater with my loved ones. My son loved the flat bread cheese pizza and Bob’s seared pork chops were too good not to steal bites from his plate. I could have relaxed there all evening (try the house Chianti – it’s delish), but we had a show to see, so we took the short stroll from South Coast Plaza over to OCPAC for the 7:30 curtain (hint: a great way to save the co$t of using the parking structure).

The excitement in the theater was palpable. Children were chirping their excitement and I spied several little girls donning their Belle gowns of yellow and crowns of gold. OCPAC’s family series surely is one of OC’s best bets for sneaking culture into your child’s life. We’re loving both the Family Friendly and Broadway series this year.

The lights go down, the orchestra swells with the familiar melody “Tale as old time…” and the audience cheers with anticipation. While the packed house full of families and young children loved every bit of the show, I was puzzled. Something was missing, not quite right. While everything was in place as far as the characters, award winning songs, book (both of which I know by heart after years of raising my now college age daughter on the Beauty and the Beast movie and soundtrack)…. The production seemed not of the caliber of the other touring productions that have come to town. The orchestra sound was thin (26 instruments cut down to 11), the set was a bit wobbly, the grandeur was gone and it took a while to get used to this more down scaled version of the musical I expected. The design was more storybook drawn and quaint; more civic light opera than big budget Broadway…which is fine. I just hadn’t expected it and it took a bit of time to change my perspective. Perhaps, just like it took time for Belle to get to know the endearing qualities of the Beast.

Don’t expect opulence with this NETworks touring production. This company puts together a storybook version and the story is told well. Director Rob Roth says “The theme of ‘Beauty’ is about seeing past the exterior into the heart of someone, and this is reflected in the design for the show, which is about transparency and layers, seeing past one thing and into another.”

Liz Shivener's Belle is pluckier version of the classic Belle, and her singing voice misses the crystal clear beauty of past Broadway and movie performances. Shivener’s character development is surely her strong suit.

Justin Glaser's Beast was commendable and, just like Shivener, hits the mark with adequate talent, but lacks that indefinable “something special”.

Just like my nepotistic view of my son’s grade school performance, the supporting roles hold the gold for standout performances.

Nathaniel Hackmann’s Gaston was silky smooth as the narcissistic town hunk/bully, and the comic timing with his battered sidekick, Lefou, (Michael Fatica) gave some of the best moments in the show. Fatica’s Lefou had the kids in stitches with all the pratfalls and silliness the character warrants.

Liz Merritt David Jane as Lumiere and Keith Kirkwood as Cogworth are perfect as the castle’s odd couple, one all about amour and hospitality, the other about time management and rules.

Mrs. Potts was a bit bland for my taste. Good but not memorable, even with the show’s most well known song all to herself. It went down fine, but I wouldn’t think to ask for seconds.

My favorite number wasn’t one of the famous song, but rather Nathaniel Hackmann and Liz Shivener performing “Me!”. The number had the magic mix of perfectly timed and funny choreography, a catchy tempo with humorous lyrics. You won’t get this in the DVD, so the only way to catch a bit of theatrical perfection is to come watch tonight’s and Sunday’s final performance before it leaves town.

So what’s my verdict? Hey, I’m a theater geek and I’m picky. All in all, this show is a wonderful event for parents, grandparents, and kids to laugh and sing along with a famous family standard. It’s a timeless love story with solid lessons: look past appearances, for they are only skin deep. Kindness, self sacrifice, protection and caring are the qualities to admire. Take your kids, they’ll love it.