Inanimate Objects

The best part of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's shamelessly commercial musical theater version of Beauty and the Beast happens before the orchestra starts warming up. On opening night, the usually hushed, oh-so-serious Jones Hall was filled with a different sort of energy. Stomping up the red-carpeted stairs of the vaulted lobby was an army of noisy, energetic girls. Wide-eyed and frilly, each and every mophead seemed to be done up in her best ribbons or velvet or patent leather shoes. They marched into the theater, dutifully yanking up their baggy stockings or lacy ankle socks while gripping their programs as they read their tickets and chunked their wads of gum. Most were accompanied by their mothers, although one brave young dad pulled at a curly-haired angel. She skipped along behind him, innocently stepping on people's toes as she hunted down her assigned seat with a theater-serious look on her face, this is clearly a chick-flick, uh, theater sort of thing.

What happens after the curtain opens is not nearly as interesting as the charmingly goofy parade of gangly girls to whom this musical is clearly pitched. Anyone who's seen the ubiquitous film version knows the girl-power story. Lovely, odd Belle (Danyelle Bossardet) is the heroine all parents want their girls to emulate. Though she's the prettiest girl in town, she doesn't care a whit about beauty. Instead, she loves books, has an active imagination, lives by her own standards and is close to her dear old dad.

She wants something more than the "provincial" small-minded life offered by her hometown. Through a plot twist or two she ends up in an enchanted castle occupied by a series of charming characters and one growling Beast (Grant Norman). It's not bad enough that she's trapped in the castle, the real trouble comes when the good-looking, soulless and just plain dim-witted Gaston (Marc Dalio), who lives in Belle's town, sets his sights on marrying her. All sorts of mayhem spins about before anyone gets to live happily ever after, but of course they do in the end. This is a fairy tale, after all.

The animated film version of this tale delights kids with its speed, movie magic and gooey sentimental surprise. And although the stage version is doggedly similar to its animated parent, it's clear from the opening that cartoon fun can come off as, well, flat in the 3-D world of flesh and bones.

In fact, the flashy, fun cartoon turns downright stodgy on stage. The performers, who sing beautifully, belabor the jokes, thin as they are. Oftentimes the rhythm of the whole show is off, with the actors allowing gaps of silence between their exchanges. Even Dalio's Gaston, who really does a good job of mimicking the cartoon's gleaming smile, seems heavy-handed. Only David DeVries as Lumiere shines with the jubilant energy of his animated counterpart.

And while the actors often appear to be overwrought, the tunes Tim Rice and Menken have added to Ashman's songs from the film often feel underwritten. Only the music straight from the movie, including the favorites "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and the Beast," have any real energy.

Lots of money has gone into the production values. Several designers, including an illusion designer (Jim Steinmeyer) and a prosthetics designer (John Dods), have tried to turn live theater into film. The results -- they include Stanley A. Meyer's constantly moving set in which gigantic trees slide across the stage like ocean waves to simulate the characters moving through the forest -- feels belabored. Instead of fairy-tale magic, all this effort only seems overworked and obscenely expensive.

Three hours after they'd walked in, the battalion of girls dutifully rose to their feet and gave the production a standing ovation. But when the houselights came up and they filed out, one little cherub whined to nobody in particular, "The movie was way, way better."

Like Beauty and the Beast, Theater Under the Stars' inaugural production at their new home base, the Hobby Center, is also based on a popular movie. Some Like It Hot follows the story from the great comedy starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. Writers Peter Stone, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill have put together a loose-limbed musical that works most of all because of director Dan Siretta's flashy performers -- they include a rather rickety Curtis recast as a natty, naughty old man.

The story takes us back to the gangster era of Chicago, 1929. Jerry (Timothy Gulan) and Joe (Arthur Hanket) are two out-of-work musicians who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. To get out of town, they dress up like ugly women and join an all-girl band. Once they've climbed on board a train headed to Miami, they meet Sugar (Jodi Carmeli) and the rest of the crew and everyone falls in love.

This is old-styled, somewhat dusty humor. Much of it -- including all the jokes about Sugar's problems with alcohol and the running gag about men marrying men -- comes off as ridiculously dated. But the mostly older crowd at the Hobby Center didn't seem to mind, and the cast pulls off this material with a great deal of old-time pizzazz.

Heading up the energetic troupe of performers is Carmeli, who has managed to make the role of Sugar her very own. That's no easy task, considering the part was made famous by the indomitable Marilyn Monroe. Every bit her own style of bombshell, the curvy, blond Carmeli also can belt out a song that will knock you to the back of your seat. When she sings "People in My Life," her gorgeous voice swells and catches with all the big-hearted emotion any Broadway moment could ask for.

Gulan and Hanket don't have the distinctive energies that made the performances by Lemmon and Curtis so memorable on the big screen. But they seem to be having a great time on stage and are fun to watch, despite the material they're working with.

William Ryall as Spats, the tap-dancing gangster, heads up a large chorus of tappers, who inspired rousing rounds of applause. And Curtis is charming most of all because he's such a good sport about all the old-man jokes. The opening-night audience leaped to its feet when he stood in the middle of a chorus line of women who danced around him as he stomped about a bit, kicking up his heels here and there while grinning from ear to ear. The moment is bizarre -- Curtis doesn't so much dance as wiggle. Throughout the show, someone was always there to steady him or grab him should he fall. On the other hand, Curtis has such a winningly modest stage presence it's hard not to be won over.

Some Like It Hot is a long way from great theater. But anyone who loves big old-time musicals will enjoy these terrific performers. If it's story you're looking for, rent the film.

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Lee Williams