By KRISTIN SPRINGER
Brevard Culture Theatre Critic
Despite surrendering their tech week to Hurricane Dorian, the cast & team of “Beauty and the Beast” magically opened a glistening show in a renovated theater, where Disney tunes, glittery cocktails, and character-driven desserts offered to release the prince or princess in us all. In a restaging of his Titusville production three years ago, executive artistic director Steven Heron mounts this live version of the favored Disney film as the grand opening of his first full season at the Henegar Center.
From the start, an ensemble number featuring juicy chords and familiar lyrics introduces the audience to life in 18th-century provincial France (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton, music direction by Spencer Crosswell). Just on the outskirts of town live a reclusive inventor with his pretty and imaginative daughter, Belle. Humor surfaces in the form of three ‘Miss Muffets’ who chase and pine for the affections of town-hunk Gaston, who in turn is smitten with Belle.
Unbeknownst to the provincials, an enchanted castle nearby suffers a curse whereby their prince resembles a Minotaur and the servants gradually transform into inanimate objects. The choice of objects is explained in the dialogue: people become what they inadvertently personified as humans. A heartbreaker becomes a candlestick, a manager becomes a clock, and a coquette becomes a feather-duster. This reviewer, who is a music teacher, might have been turned into a piano? Heron seems to also value arts education: his productions repeat themes about the power of music and reading to overcome difficulties to bring the protagonist a triumphant end.
Kristen Olson, a resident of New York City, is sensational in the role of Belle. There’s little wonder as to why Heron asked her to return after featuring her in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Her musicality, especially the control of her range and her sense of de/crescendo, makes her performance a masterclass of how to restrain/release one’s voice for the sake of storytelling.
Wide-eyed and personable, Olson draws us into her narrative where family members support each other “No Matter What,” a positive outlook can turn a scary new “Home” into a marvelous adventure, and speaking truth to power softens opponents while developing one’s personal character. This is especially demonstrated in the song “A Change in Me,” written expressly for Toni Braxton’s Broadway portrayal of Belle. The song addresses the ways in which Belle’s initial motivations shift during her imprisonment, explaining to “Papa” Maurice (Daniel McDonald) that she has matured and no longer longs for the adventures in her books. McDonald, a career actor residing in Orlando, portrays a comforting and understated patriarchal figure akin to Pinocchio’s Geppetto.
Belle’s overconfident suitor Gaston is played by Brevard resident Joe Horton, who was featured last season on the Henegar stage in the title role of “Tarzan.” The studly villain offers Belle his burly biceps and flamboyant ego, but lacks sensitivity to what inspires and interests Belle. While she reads novels, Gaston murders the French vocabulary and bemoans the “dangers of thinking;” proceeding to surreptitiously “make plans to woo and marry Belle.”
Horton is appropriately charming and charismatic, and his tenor notes find their mark in the soaring scores of “Belle” and “The Mob Song.” Indeed, he’s quite the cowboy as he twirls petite Olson like a lasso in “Me.” He also dwarfs his sidekick LeFou (Dominic del Brocco, a local director and acting coach who returns to the role he filled in Titusville) who evokes vaudevillian animations reminiscent of Joel Grey and Dick van Dyke. Del Brocco’s non-stop charisma comically shines in the song “Gaston” in which he tirelessly bolsters his employer’s ego and reputation within the community.
Kyle McDonald, returning to the Henegar stage after leading roles in the previous mainstage shows of “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Bonnie & Clyde,” completes the unlikely romantic triangle (Beast). As the proverbial bull in a china shop, McDonald’s character gruffly vacillates between raging intimidation and sulking introspection. His solos include “How Long Must This Go On” and “If I Can’t Love Her.” The Beast’s magical transformation is a copywritten effect designed by Broadway “aerial sculptor” Daniel Wurtzel specifically for Heron’s 2016 production. Immediately after the transformation, it’s a wonderful relief to see McDonald’s smiling face: his curly tresses trimmed and tamed for the final kiss.
However, the brightest light on the stage is Jordyn Linkous in his outstanding performance as the flamboyant candlestick (Lumiere). As a stark contrast to his nearly simultaneous role of Miss Trunchbull in Titusville Playhouse’s season-opener Matilda, everything on Linkous glistens from the baubles on his suit to the glowing candles that flash where hands should be. His French accent c’est magnifique as is his chemistry with Rob Landers (Clocksworth). Audiences will love the spectacular “culinary cabaret” that Linkous whips up with a Ziegfield-inspired can-can dance in the Act I closer “Be Our Guest” (choreographed by Rachel Erickson; wigs and costumes also by Linkous and Harris Costumes).
Other delights come from Dani Montalvo (Babette) who delivers femme-fatale poses and a French accent, Titusville Playhouse regular Jocelyn Evans who contributes effervescent opera (Madame de la Grande Bouche), and theater newcomer Carrie Roberts (Mrs. Potts) who brings a maternally creole presence all her own to the role and title song. Roberts’ voice, one reminiscent of Etta James, provides calming effect on the males in the castle. Perhaps inspired by her spinning costume, an expression from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” comes to mind: “the husband might be the head of household, but the wife is the neck, and she can turn the head anywhere she wants it to go.”
The prologue and other small-cast action occur in front of the red velvet external curtain; then cabins and storefronts represent the town in front of another curtain. Lighting designer Luke Atkinson uses footlights to foreboding effect in the songs “Maison des Lunes” and “Kill the Beast.” An enormous rotating castle provides sumptuous alcoves for the action (Jay Bleakney); some of which may be lost to patrons seated in the balcony due to the sightlines. However, no one seems to mind: across the balcony on opening night kids and teens were restless with excitement, and indeed the heart-warming performances and themes of “Beauty and the Beast” likely inspire optimism in even the stoniest of hearts.
Side o’ Grits: Beauty and the Beast runs Sept 6-22nd, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with Sunday Matinees at 2pm (also Saturday matinees on the 14th and 21st). Tickets cost $27-29 ($19 for groups) and can be purchased by calling 321.723.8698 or visiting Henegar.org.
Kristin Springer is a Master Music Educator who grew up in Florida and holds a graduate degree from New York University. She offers private vocal coaching, piano lessons, Triple Talent and Music Readiness classes out of the Springer Music Studio. For a link to her studio’s Facebook page, click here.