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Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre Coral Gables Florida
Posted on
Mon, Nov. 22, 2004
REVIEW : Classic 'Beauty' a lavish treat

TERRIFIC DUO: Gwen Hollander and Tally Sessions deliver rich performances in the Actors' Playhouse production of Beauty and the Beast.
It's the polar opposite of the sort of ''entertainment'' that earns FCC fines and conservative condemnation. When it comes to family-friendliness, it's tough to imagine anything more cheerfully inclusive than Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

But as the ambitious new production of the show at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables demonstrates, Beauty and the Beast isn't must-see theater for everyone. Families and Disney devotees will enjoy it, for sure. But if you're kid-free or don't particularly like shows derived from animated fairy tales, this is one you could skip.

The first South Florida regional theater production of the popular Disney musical gets the same lavish, creative treatment Actors' gives to all of its big shows. That's why the company has become the region's predominant producer of musicals: Artistic director David Arisco, utilizing both South Florida and based-elsewhere (usually New York) talent, knows how to deliver the goods.

Led by sparkling Gwen Hollander as the beautiful Belle and Tally Sessions as a Beast more empathetically vulnerable than frightening, the cast is terrific.

Mary Lynne Izzo and Darío Almirón have outdone themselves on a vast array of fanciful, sometimes beautiful costumes. Choreographer Barbara Flaten, though constrained by the sheer size of some of the costumes, brings stylish panache to everything from the razzle-dazzle of Be Our Guest to the falling-in-love dance of Belle and her Beast. Musical director Eric Alsford and his small orchestra sound much mightier on the big numbers.

The only real disappointment of the show is M.P. Amico's set design. Though Patrick Tennent lights it artfully -- blazing ''sunshine'' for the little cottage where Belle lives with her kooky inventor-father Maurice (Gary Marachek), fog-shrouded darkness for the Beast's spooky castle -- the storybook-cartoonish design comes off looking cheap. Creating the musical's multiple locations is a challenge, but it hasn't been well served by Amico and Arisco's design choice, which is at odds with the lavish costumes and rich performances.

At the literal heart of Beauty and the Beast, of course, is the last-chance love story of the Beast and Belle. As the audience learns in a magical prologue, the Beast is actually a heartless young prince transformed into a creature that looks a lot like an upright water buffalo. If he cannot truly give and receive love by the time the last petal drops from an enchanted rose, the spell that made him as ugly on the outside as he was within will be permanent. And his servants, slowly turning from humans into objects, will be doomed as well.

What's especially lovely about this Beauty and the Beast is meshing of its varied performance styles.

Belle and the Beast are fairly traditional leads, if you can call a guy as horned and hirsute as the Beast ''traditional.'' Hollander's sweet soprano brings both yearning and brightness to the songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and she conveys Belle's odd-girl-out braininess as well as her lovely appeal.

Sessions, who won the Carbonell Award for playing the title role in Floyd Collins at Actors', always communicates the pain beneath the Beast's bluster, and his solos on How Long Must This Go On? and If I Can't Love Her are gloriously powerful.

Terrell Hardcastle as the terribly proper Cogsworth, Bill Perlach as the charming Lumiere and Lourelene Snedeker as warm-hearted Mrs. Potts -- terrific singing actors all -- enrich the production immeasurably. And on the cartoonish end of the spectrum, Robert Rokicki as the buffoonish Gaston and David Perez-Ribada as his hapless sidekick Lefou are a hoot.

Beauty and the Beast may be a little scary for the tiniest theatergoers. But for anyone else -- providing you like this sort of show -- it's enchanting.

Beauty and the Blimp
The Disney classic is slow on the runway, but when it takes off, it soars

originally published: November 25, 2004

It's pretty near impossible not to be impressed with the Actors' Playhouse's gangbuster production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast (yes, the corporate moniker is part of the official title). This should come as no surprise; the Coral Gables troupe has become the undisputed king of musical theater in South Florida. In truth, surprise is not a word usually associated with the Playhouse, which rarely takes artistic risks, opting instead to scale huge production challenges. Each season has seen bigger and bigger musical productions. Beauty isn't the most difficult Playhouse project in terms of its musical requirements, but its technical challenges are daunting. The show is filled with magical sleight of hand, big dance numbers, and a formidable array of costume demands -- most of the furniture, from the tables to an acrobatic doormat, are dancing characters. The Playhouse production, which closely resembles the on-going Broadway version, now in its eleventh year, also calls for a formidable cast of 26; some of the big musical numbers require more actors on stage than some local theaters hire for an entire season.

The basics of the Beauty story are well known -- a young girl, Belle, is imprisoned by a rich, powerful monster who is really a handsome prince under an evil spell. Through her eventual love for him, the monster is freed from the spell, and they marry. The tale has been around for centuries and crops up around the world (folklorists Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson cite 179 stories from many cultures that deal with the theme of a monster as bridegroom). What sets Beauty apart from most fairy tales is the focus on a flawed, adult relationship, centering on male rage and the redeeming power of love. The old fairy tale has been simplified in this Disney version (curmudgeons would say deracinated) and used as the source of the animated feature film, several straight-to-video sequels, an ice dancing spectacle, and the current stage version, which cleaves closely to the movie script. Beauty's screen-to-stage adaptation lacks the dazzling reinvention that Julie Taymor brought to The Lion King, but it's purposeful and functional, a solid, satisfying tale.

The Playhouse production measures up to its illustrious antecedents. It's well-sung, well-acted, and well-produced,
and it should let the Disney executives concerned about quality control rest easy. In its close adherence to the Broadway original, it's admirable but not entirely lovable, an efficient hotel of a show, something to check into comfortably but briefly. The Playhouse's artistic staff delivers four-star work. David Arisco's staging is skillful and clear, ably abetted by Barbara Flaten's muscular choreography. Costumer Mary Lynne Izzo has a field day with whimsical getups for the array of dancing furniture.

As Belle, Gwen Hollander is a plucky pragmatist, not the usual dreamy romantic. Hollander's singing is strong and articulated but lacks emotional textures; her vocals generate more light than heat. Still Hollander is a dynamic performer and energizes the show every time she makes an entrance. She's backed by an able supporting cast, with the hilarious Robert Rokicki as Gaston, Belle's relentless suitor, leading the list. Gaston is a narcissistic bully, so in love with himself that he doesn't notice that his intended bride can't stand him. We shall be the perfect pair, he shamelessly croons, rather like my thighs. Rokicki, not intimidated by shame, milks this role for every laugh he can get, nicely abetted by David Perez-Ribada as Gaston's dentally challenged sidekick, Lefou. Perez-Ribada, who has cropped up in a remarkable range of roles in local theaters, has found his niche as an inventive, knock-about comedian. The cast has a long list of fine featured performers. Bill Perlach makes a suave Lumiere, the French candelabra; Terrell Hardcastle is an amusing Cogsworth, the officious clock; Lourelene Snedeker adds warmth and beautiful vocal support as the kindly teapot, Mrs. Potts.

Beauty is an enormous undertaking, and achieving some kind of pace and drive with it is no small feat; it's something like getting a dirigible airborne. The Playhouse production takes some time to get going -- despite the individual performances and energetic staging, the first act on opening night tended to drag. Only when Tally Sessions as the Beast finished the first half with a soulful, stirring "If I Can't Love Her" did the show get fully aloft, picking up emotional power in the second half. Sessions is a riveting, dynamic stage presence, as he so ably demonstrated in the title role of Floyd Collins, a recent Playhouse hit about a man pinned in a cave he was exploring. Here, Sessions faces similar challenges -- he' s unrecognizable under the Beast's monstrous mask and costume. Despite this, Sessions gives the Beast great soul and emotional texture, and when the story finally focuses on a series of scenes between Belle and the Beast in the second act, Sessions and Hollander deliver the romantic goods. For all the whiz-bang production elements, what makes Beauty and the Beast click is what drives all drama, from Sophocles to Sex and the City -- the human heart. No surprise there.

Lourelene Snedeker, Gwen Hollander, Bill Perlach and Terrell Hardcastle
in Disney's Beauty and the Beast at Actors' Playhouse
PHOTO BY: Daniel Portnoy
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Actors’ Playhouse
By Tony Guzman Critic at Large - Sun Post
originally published: November 25, 2004
Obviously meant to be the crowning jewel of Actors’ Playhouse’s 10th Anniversary Season, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opened last Saturday night at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables amidst twirling searchlights and considerable hoopla. Executive Producing Director Barbara S. Stein effused during the lengthy parade of local politicos, corporate sponsors and well-heeled donors coming on stage to kiss her cheek and have their pictures snapped, that the show is “the most major production we’ve ever done here.” Indeed, this Beauty is the first bona fide regional theater production of the Disney juggernaut, and Artistic Director David Arisco veritably bounded on stage to reiterate that the show is not a touring production, having been cast and produced locally. Via this show, Actors’ Playhouse, a genuinely first-rate regional theater (when it comes to musicals and other fan-friendly divertissements), takes the measure of Broadway itself, as it were.

The story you know: a handsome prince is repulsed by an ugly hag and is turned into the Beast, cursed to remain in this sorry state till redeemed by love. He retreats to an enchanted castle deep in the wolf-infested forest, his servants and staff having been turned into sundry household objects and implements. Meanwhile, idealistic, book-loving Belle is being pestered by Gaston, the handsome village ruffian, while her papa Maurice (a kooky inventor rather a merchant in Disney’s version) generally makes a muddle of things. Will our brainy, spunky heroine learn that true beauty lies within, and so save the day? Don’t bet against it.

The heart and soul of any production of this show is bound to be the performances rendering Beauty and the Beast. That’s especially so given the inherent limitations of a regional production, space and glitz-wise. The Actors’ Playhouse Beauty is fortunate indeed in this regard. Tally Sessions embodies the physicality of the Beast impressively, while bringing considerable depth to the role. Although Gwen Hollander’s quivery vibrato wears on you a bit early on, she grows on you palpably, and her winsomeness and emotional aliveness results in an ultimately enchanting Belle.

Robert Rokicki is suitably loutish, and very funny, as Gaston, as is David Perez-Ribada in the role of his hapless lackey, Lefou. Gary Marachek, an inspired comedic actor, makes the most of the part of Belle’s loopy pop.

The actors portraying the Beast’s servants/household objects are hugely entertaining despite the considerable challenge presented by the rigidities of their costumes. As the candelabra, Lumiere, Bill Perlach serves almost as an alternate heart of the show, oozing affability and Gallic charm (and abetted by the ability to spew fire from his “hands”). The rest of the “objects” are engaging and entertaining: Terrell Hardcastle as Cogsworth (a clock), Erin Romero as Madame de la Grand Bouche (a dresser) and Anna K. DeMoranville as Babbette (a feather duster? anyway, something fuzzy). Lourelene Snedeker (Mrs. Potts) does a nice job with the title tune (the only really memorable song in the score).

The production values are generally top-notch given the limitations of a regional theater, particularly the exuberant, lavish costumes by Mary Lynne Izzo and Dario Almiron and the storybook décor by M.P. Amico, which although rather boxy, is evocative and moves fluidly from scene to scene. Kudos also to Patrick Tennent’s effective lighting and the sound design of Nate Rausch and Alexander Herrin. Oh, this Beauty is beautifully sung and the band is good. Everybody lives happily ever after.
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Phone: (305) 444-9293 Fax: (305) 444-4181