“Beauty and the Beast” is a classic French fairy tale that never grows old, especially when it is in the right theatrical hands. The cast and crew of the Stockton Civic Theatre make it possible for us to take a tour of the cursed castle, merry tavern and bustling town square of the French village where the timeless tale once again comes to life.
A 1991 Disney animation film graduated to the big time in 1994 when “Beauty and the Beast” became a Broadway musical with book by Linda Woolverton and music by Alan Menken. The question at that time was whether a successful animation feature could be translated into a success on the Broadway stage. Critics had doubts. Audiences had none. The Disney musical version ran for the next 13 years.
The timing couldn’t be better for the stage superhit to arrive here, given its spirit of enchantment for holiday audiences. Directed by Dominee Muller-Kimball, with live music conducted by husband Paul Kimball, the production runs until December 17, offering a lesson on the restorative power of love and kindness. Its storytelling magic appeals to the kid in all of us.
The classic is given vitality by a cast led by the powerful singing and acting of a cursed prince (Cole Bryant), the blithe spirit of Belle (Chelsea Carruesco), a village girl with whom the heartless beast uncharacteristically falls in love, and the prankish machismo of playboy Gaston (Colin Cooney), a biceps-flexing, chest-baring narcissist with whom village girls (particularly a silly trio portrayed by Sabiene Fontanilla, Esther Henderson and Shannon “Shazza” Lyons) are madly in love. Never mind that swooning trio. Gaston has his heart set on seducing Belle, unaware that the smart, sensible, book-loving beauty can only feel contempt for a man whose unbridled egotism is farcical.
Belle has another suitor whose chances seem even more remote than those of Gaston. Unaware that love is the means to lift the curse pronounced upon him at the start of the play, the vexed beast falls for the principled beauty. The two seem certain to remain antagonists, but their seemingly impossible relationship is the dramatic core of the play.
The story begins with the heartless prince refusing to befriend a poor old woman seeking shelter within the castle and offering a single rose for the privilege. The cold-hearted prince laughingly refuses her, unaware that he is dealing with a sorceress whose idea of revenge will turn him into a monster and remodel his servants into household implements. The curse afflicting all of them can only be lifted if the prince develops a sense of caring for another human being. But how can anyone so bestial ever acquire such feeling? And how can he inspire a feeling for himself in another?
Drama aside, there are wonderful touches of humor throughout the play, including the arrival of belle’s father, an eccentric inventor, in a hilarious contraption you might call a horseless carriage or the world’s first automobile. Whatever it is, it is definitely not the kind of vehicle that will impress your friends or neighbors.
There is also the amusing predicament of the prince’s faithful servants, trying to carry on their appointed tasks despite being transformed into a clock, armoire, candelabra and teapot. You can imagine what a challenge such new identities presented to the show’s designers. Costume designers Kathie Dixon and Cathy Fiore Hastings, for example, had a staff of ten sewing assistants.
It’s a labor of love to mount a production as ambitious as this, but many of those involved in it felt motivated by its inherent appeal.
“I love the magic of it,” director Dominee Muller-Kimball said. “Audiences feel the wonder of this tale as old as time. They are immersed into the story once the lights dim and the orchestra plays the overture. At every performance, all of us in the theatre experience this classic story together.”
Actress Chelsea Carruesco said she was able to enhance her role by bringing her feelings about Belle into her portrayal.
“I love bringing Belle to life because I feel like she is not your average Disney princess,” Carruesco said about her character. “She is charming and lovable, but also witty. She loves to push boundaries and I feel like it makes her more realistic and relevant.”
The appeal for theatergoers, she added, is the way in which they, too, can find connection and meaning.
“Everyone can relate to one of the characters in such a unique way, and it makes the audience reflect on the transformative power of love and acceptance.”
A love that can turn a selfish and arrogant “beast” into a worthy companion for a woman of Belle’s values and virtues is not easily obtained, the play reminds us, but in real life as well as theatrical fantasy, its power is indeed magical.
Given its drama and humor, creative costuming and precision choreography, and its timely reminder about the necessity of granting affection and consideration to others, this production of “Beauty and the Beast” is a lesson that will not soon be forgotten by its audiences.
Once again, the theatre has come up with a beverage appropriate to the production. The lobby refreshment site is offering a commemorative “kid’s brew” consisting of apple juice, mango juice, and Torani toasted marshmallow syrup, topped with whipped cream. Like the musical itself, the beverage is kid friendly, and comes with a souvenir cup ($10). It’s an ideal brew for making a pre-curtain or intermission toast to the happiness of Belle and the Beast. If you choose to do so, lift your cup to the troubled couple—-and to the power of a love that can overcome all obstacles and reverse any curse.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”
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