In 1993, almost two decades ago, the stage version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, an animated musical film, premiered in Houston, opened on B'way in 1994, and ran for 13 years and 5,464 performances, ending in 2007. Now a new national touring production comes to Houston for a very brief stop -- just through Sunday -- courtesy of Gexa Energy Broadway.
The theme of "beauty lies within" is present but is a slender thread compared to the dominant theme of "entertainment tonight." The musical is brash, in-your-face, and eclectic, using whatever it takes to keep and hold your interest, whether it be broad, obvious humor, pratfalls, or special effects. Many scenes take place in a picturesque village which has the style of a children's pop-up book, where a page is turned and a three-dimensional image emerges.
Gaston is the village swain, sought after by several pretty lasses, but he is determined to wed Belle, a beauty yearning for a richer life than the village offers. We know Gaston is a villain because he plans to continue his amorous alliances with admirers even after his marriage. Matt Farcher plays Gaston with an ingratiating smug self-confidence, and creates an authentic, interesting portrait of a spoiled youth with more muscles than brains. Gaston mistreats his sidekick Lefou, played by Jimmy Larkin, who enriches the show with a superb comic tour-de-force performance, athletic, gymnastic, with split-second timing and irrepressible energy.
Belle of course has no use for Gaston. She is played by Hilary Maiberger, who exudes both the sweetness of virtue and the sanity of good judgment, and she is admirable in all ways, bringing to the party beauty, poise, and good-nature - and a voice to match. Maiberger's rich talents are crucial to the success of the production, as the characterization of the Beast is deeply flawed - he is a cartoon character, weak, without self-confidence, totally devoid of dignity, and badly in need of an anger-management course. He is played by Darick Pead, who does well in the role - the flaw is in the writing, not the performance, and Pead does manage in his songs to create an aura of power, and pathos. He is condemned to burlesque in his dialogue, but Maiberer as Belle makes their growing relationship plausible. And Maiberger brings the same authenticity to her loving relationship with her invention-minded father, played with humor and warmth by William A. Martin.
The castle and the woods leading to it might have been created by Tim Burton. They echo the dark side of human nature, and the inhabitants of the castle, cursed by a sorceress some years back, are inventive: Lumiere, a candelabra-valet played by Hassan Nazari-Robati; Cogsworth, a mantel clock-butler played by James May; Mrs. Potts, a teapot-cook played by Erin Edelle; Babette, a feather-duster-maid played by Jessica Lorion; and Madame de la Grande Bouche, a wardrobe-diva played by Shani Hadjian. All are excellent, and amusing. The curse of course includes transforming a prince into the Beast.
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A third style emerges with the song "Be Our Guest," a rollicking, extended triumph that had strong echoes of Busby Berkeley, the gifted film choreographer of the '20s and '30s. Equally rousing and enthusiastic was "Gaston," a drinking song - both used the entire ensemble to good effect. The special effects were dramatic, using lighting and music to enhance them, and I especially liked the forest wolves, mysterious and sleek and dangerous, a torch-lit scene where the townsfolk marched on the caste, and the climactic scene where Gaston battles the Beast - here, all the resources of stagecraft come together to create magic. The music is by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton, and it is directed by Rob Roth.
The enduring French fable about the transformational power of love bounds into Houston with all cylinders clicking. Humor, pathos, special effects and a gifted cast generate fun, excitement and moments of awe-inspiring wonder, including a stellar performance by Hilary Maiberger as the Beauty who comes to love the Beast.
Disney's Beauty and the Best continues through September 30 at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For ticketing or information, call 800-952-6560 or contact www.thehobbycenter.org.