Beauty and a Beastly good show

A little fairy-tale fervor for the holidays hits the right notes in the Newmark

This year, for the first time in I can’t recall how long, I’m taking a pass on “The Nutcracker.” Martha Ullman West has handled the reporting on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s most recent production of it quite admirably, and without professional obligation I’ve decided to give the sugarplums a little rest.

bellebeast

That leaves a hole for the requisite big splashy fantasy show to light up the holiday season, and – surprise! – here comes the Disney musical-theater version of “Beauty and the Beast” to fill it in quite winningly. Pixie Dust Productions’ show opened Saturday night in the Newmark Theatre, and I caught Sunday’s matinee, which was pretty well packed with parents, teens, young princesses, and musical-theater aficionados, almost all of whom leapt to their feet at the show’s conclusion and clapped in rhythm to the orchestra as the large cast took its curtain calls. This didn’t seem the usual Portland rolling ovation, in which people slowly and semi-reluctantly struggle to their feet because they think they’re supposed to. It seemed genuine and spontaneous: an enthusiastic reward for a job well done.

Pixie Dust is musical-theater veteran Greg Tamblyn’s baby, and he’s both an excellent technician and a true believer, a canny combination of head and heart. Working on a decidedly non-Broadway budget, he gets a huge visual bang for his buck, and he casts extremely well. The songs, by Alan Mencken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and (after Ashman’s death from AIDS) Tim Rice, aren’t terribly demanding technically, but they’re lyrical and memorable, with an exquisite blend of familiarity and surprise, and they do demand well-trained voices that have both size and control. Across the board, from Erin Charles’s plucky Belle and Leif Norby’s wounded Beast to 8-year-old trouper Aida Valentine’s Chip, the precocious teacup, this “Beauty and the Beast” is beautifully sung. And it’s acted (and danced: choreography by Broadway vet Amy Beth Frankel) with a keen sense of the play’s subtle blend of comedy and drama, demonstrating yet again that Portland’s musical-theater scene is stronger and broader than it’s been in years.

I’ve seen several versions of “B & B,” and it took me a while to warm up to it, I think partly because the 1991 animated movie on which it’s based still seems so close to perfect: light, fizzy, quick, inventive, utterly charming. When Disney brought the tale out as a Broadway stage musical in 1994 the show seemed bloated by comparison: overlong, heavier, stretched out and bogged down. Several later productions did little to shake that impression, including a hot-and-cold Broadway touring show at Keller Auditorium a little less than two years ago, and I’d pretty much accepted that, while the stage version had a lot of strengths, it was no match for the movie original.

Johanne and Wheatley, getting whoop-de-doo. Pixie Dust Productions

Johannes and Wheatley, getting whoop-de-doo. Pixie Dust Productions

Pixie Dust’s production is making me rethink that. The movie was a soufflé: a French Baroque lark with dashes of Moulin Rouge, old-time Broadway dazzle, and Maurice Chevalier wink. The stage version is more a cassoulet: strong, rich, hearty, and deep. While it retains a lot of the fun of the film version, it’s about twice as long and so naturally heavier. It lacks the film’s sleek lightness, but by having real people behind the costumes and makeup, it adds a human weight that, when it’s performed well, deepens the emotional impact without sacrificing the fairy-tale sense of wonder. Things are a little more obvious in the stage version, but that, too, adds to the humanizing effect. And even the showy smoke and mirrors and flashes of light, so reminiscent of 19th century theatrical tricks, add an intriguing historical wrinkle to the tale. The musical-stage version still seems a bit long, especially in the first act, but the payoff is in the added shadings. In the end, the film’s a film, and the show’s a show, and they’re alike, but different.

“Beauty and the Beast” isn’t strictly a Christmas show, but it fits the season. It’s wintery, with Beast filling the metaphorical role of a kind of Ice Queen who gradually melts as he discovers love. It involves a great sacrifice (more than one, actually) that leads not just to a happy ending, but a transformative one. And on a less exalted note, some of those scenes – the terrific “Be Our Guest” sequence comes to mind – are gorgeous gifts to slip under anyone’s tree. On a different, more sociological note, Linda Woolverton’s book and Ashman and Rice’s lyrics also strike an urban tone that’s at odds with older Disney animated fairy tales: they’re quite pointed about the backwardness and occasional cruelty of tradition-bound provincial life, and quite forward about the liberating and civilizing effects of the search for knowledge, which translates to an urban outlook on life. (And if you want a “Nutcracker” tie-in, Sunday afternoon’s audience was sprinkled with excited girls all dolled up in little-princess finery.)

As Belle and Beast, Charles and Norby are particularly well-matched, both vocally and dramatically. Charles is bold and proud and outspoken, without a whiff of demure princess to her. Norby brings a haunted, hunted emotional reverberation to his portrayal that several touring-show Beasts, relying more on the cartoon aspects of the role, haven’t managed. Among the fine supporting performances, I was particularly taken with Stacey Murdock’s booming and beautifully sung portrayal of the buffoonish Gaston (and his ability to slide from comic relief to genuine villain). Also worth noting are Pam Mahon’s Brunnhilde-ish Madame de la Grande Bouche, the chest of drawers; Amy Jo Halliday’s motherly and efficient Mrs. Potts; Sara Catherine Wheatley’s coquettish romp as the maid Babette; and the comedy team of Dale Johannes and Joe Thiessen as, respectively, the candlestick Lumiere and Cogsworth the clock. The young Jefferson Dancers, from the city’s storied dance-magnet high school program, were sprightly and competent in the chorus-line roles. And that terrific Portland voice talent Sam A. Mowry got the proceedings rolling like elocutionary thunder with his opening narration.

Murdock and Charles: Muscle and the Mind. Pixie Dust Productions

Murdock and Charles: Muscle and the Mind. Pixie Dust Productions

As director, Tamblyn brings all of these elements together into a whole that has a surprising emotional effect. And Alan D. Lytle, the conductor and musical director, makes sure the music meets the show’s high expectations. He leads a good 11-piece pit orchestra that sounds thin only during the overture and entr’acte, when the reliance on a pair of keyboards to simulate a full orchestra sound is a little too obvious. But those are the economic realities of the business, and largely out of Tamblyn’s and Lytle’s hands. The last touring version had the same-sized pit band, but it was in the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, and some clumsy attempts to fill the house by pumping up the electronic volume were painful. Lytle’s orchestra fits the much smaller Newmark much more warmly and snugly, and the Newmark itself, with its burnished Edwardian stateliness, melds well with the play’s Baroque trappings. Be their guest.

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“Beauty and the Beast” continues through December 29 in the Newmark Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

The ensemble. Pixie Dust Productions

The ensemble. Pixie Dust Productions

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