Almost every time I visit BDT Stage, I try to figure out why I enjoy the company's musicals so much more than huge, lavish touring productions.
I’m not a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance, but BDT’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was slick, fast, stylish and cool — not adjectives normally applied to this mildly charming old warhorse. As for last year’s The Little Mermaid, how could a company this size come up with technical effects so sophisticated, effects that proved human ingenuity is more than equal to thousands of dollars' worth of equipment? None of that wizardry would matter if the singing, dancing and acting at BDT was lackluster, but it never is.
Do Broadway dancers have higher extensions and more gravity-defying leaps? Are their singing voices richer? Sometimes. But just as often, the actors at BDT are so talented and alive that they bring audiences close to tears.
You’ve probably seen Disney’s Beauty and the Beast several times by now, but this version is worth taking in. We meet Belle in the village where she grew up but which she considers boring and provincial — perhaps because she’s the only person in it who actually reads. Like most current Disney heroines, she’s spunky, a touch rebellious, and lovely to look at. Lillian Buonocore — who played Ariel in the Little Mermaid — gives her the kind of sweetness that can’t be faked. Belle is being courted by Gaston — and if you saw Scott Severtson, who plays the role, impersonating Elvis in Joseph or forced to perform on his knees as the diminutive Lord Farquaad of Shrek, you know how effortlessly he can dominate a stage. Whether pursued by a trio of silly girls or singing his own praises in the local tavern, Severtson is clearly enjoying the hell out of his role — which means that we are, too.
Belle’s father, Maurice (the always lovable Wayne Kennedy), gets lost in the woods and finds himself a prisoner of the Beast (Cole LaFonte). A distraught Belle discovers his imprisonment and offers to take his place. Trapped in the gloomy castle, she finds her captivity lightened by the presence of a comic group of animated, singing-dancing objects that include the candlestick Lumiere (a lively Bob Hoppe); Mrs. Potts, a teapot (Tracy Warren’s sympathetic portrayal is one of the evening’s highlights); and Cogsworth, the clock (Scott Beyette, a strong backbone of the company). Alicia K. Meyers is delicious as Madame de la Grande, the opera star wardrobe, and of course there’s little Chip, the cup, played on the night I saw the show by Markus Hollekim. All of these sentient insentients are trapped by the same spell that turned a handsome Prince into the Beast.
LaFonte, who starred with Buonocore in Mermaid, does a fine job of communicating the Beast’s loneliness and rage. As for the transformation, Greta Garbo supposedly exclaimed, “Give me back my Beast” when this occurred in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie, and I admit that’s how I always feel: No Prince, no matter how handsome, can really compete with that huge, snarling, powerful creature. Still, LaFonte comes close. And it’s hard to beat the excitement of the actual transformation, which involves several long, dizzyingly slow head-over-heels rotations in mid-air.
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It’s not only the leading roles that impress. There’s a lot of pleasure in the clean, tight ensemble dancing, and also in the smaller parts, from Leo Batlle as Gaston’s hapless punching bag, Le Fou, to the lithe and elegant Danielle Scheib’s Babette.
BDT has made significant advances in terms of casting over the past couple of years. For decades, the organization enjoyed a stable group of fine performers, in part because it was one of the few places where a local actor could get steady work. Over time, these folks either left or aged out of young leading roles, and the search for younger stars netted uneven results. What we’re seeing consistently now is a wealth of talent that includes the welcome presence of both sizzling old-timers and exciting new faces.
Turns out it's the humanity and creativity of BDT’s approach that make the company's musicals more moving than the big, glittery imports. Like all fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast carries the germ of archetypal stories: the god who visits a mortal disguised as a beggar; the demon lover who can be a monster, vampire or even a silkie — that shape-changer who’s a seal in the sea and a human on land. There’s the furious, torch-bearing mob out to destroy what they don’t understand, translated into horrifying reality a couple of years back in Charlottesville, though treated lightly and humorously here. And of course you get love, death and redemption. Beneath all its froth and pleasure, this Beauty and the Beast allows you breath and space to feel these powerful currents moving beneath the narrative.
Beauty and the Beast, now through September 21, BDT Stage, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000.