“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is a vivid celebration of generous love and a delightful musical fairy tale with a contemporary relevance for today’s audience. This production has all the pageantry that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival brings to a play and all the memories that a beloved children’s story recalls. “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” opened Sunday at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre to a full house that roared its acclaim.
A prince rudely dismisses a beggar woman only to find the beggar woman is a sorceress who changes the prince into a beast. Over the years, the Beast becomes increasingly brutish, and the servants are transformed into physical objects, such as a bureau or teapot. Only true love can redeem the Beast and return the household to human form. It’s an old, old story: Don’t judge a book by its cover; beauty is only skin deep, looks are deceiving. It’s also a play about manners, a woman’s right to choose her own destiny and the transformative power of love. Bringing it home for 2017, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is also about the danger of mob violence and the importance of tolerance and respect for others.
Jennie Greenberry is a lovely and graceful Belle; her gentle smile genuine and her compassion and determination are oh-so ardent. Belle is an outsider, the victim of mean girls and the boorish Gaston who is played by James Ryen. At times it’s all about Gaston, and if there is a monster in this play, it is Gaston, with his pompadour hair and the slick, assured way he talks with the foolish young women of the town. Belle will have nothing to do with him.
Also an outsider is the Beast, locked away in his castle, raging in anger and frustration. A credit to costume and makeup, the Beast is truly fearsome crowned with horns, covered with scales and a spiny humpback. Jordan Barbour is superb in the role, passionate and vulnerable, as Greenberry’s Belle refuses to cede to the Beast’s demands, and all call for the Beast to say please, to not be rude and to be polite. At first Belle and the Beast fight, then they dance, and when finally they love, the world is made whole and all rejoice.
The Disney part of this “Beauty and the Beast” production is the magical change of the Prince’s servants to household objects. And here’s where OSF and Ana Kuzmanic’s costume-design genius especially shine. Oversized forms — a teapot, clock hands, a bureau, a lamp — define the characters, and costumes that might seem ungainly at first are remarkably adaptable as the characters dance about. The hopeful household make a manic, enchanted collection of beings ably played by Kate Mulligan, Daniel T. Parker, David Kelly, Robin Goodrin Nordli and Britney Simpson. Tiny Naiya Gardiner wheels about in a teacup or trike and steals the show every time she appears.
While Disney’s animated film version of “Beauty and the Beast” had seven songs, theater performances have 23. These musical pieces organize the narrative and bring expression to the stage. Fine casting assured the beautiful voices in this OSF production, voices that rise singly and together, rich in emotion. The solo piece “Home” performed by Jennie Greenberry and in reprise by Kate Mulligan is especially heartbreaking, and Barbour’s deep and powerful voice brings tears as he sings “How Long Must This Go On” in Act One and “If I Can’t Love Her” in Act Two.
Jeremy Peter Johnson is wonderful as Monqieur D’Arque, an A-list actor who, as a really bad B-list standup comedian, tells terrible jokes and there’s plenty of butt scratching and bad behavior.
All these and more are the reasons why children and adults will love “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” familiar from cultural myth, books, animation, film and theater productions. The theme song and characters are cherished, and more, there’s so much to look at on the set, so many lines to ponder and so much to giggle at. The more serious side of the show, though, is the pain of isolation, a community’s rejection of difference, the importance of civility and respect, and finally, fear that in the end is transformed to compassion through love. Even a young child will understand and appreciate these themes.
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” continues in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 15, with a sign interpreted production on July 23. The performance runs about two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission.
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland, Oregon and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.