OST ends season with energetic Disney musical
OKOBOJI, Iowa -- Okoboji Summer Theater has chosen a blockbuster as its season's final production. Its performance of "Beauty and the Beast" crackles with energy and showcases a fine troupe of singers and dancers.
Based on a French fable, the stage version of "Beauty and the Beast" was preceded by Disney's animated movie version, released in 1991. The musical play ran on Broadway for more than 5,000 performances and is now a staple of regional theater. The book, by Linda Woolverton, avoids most of the darkness of the myth and leavens the story of self-sacrifice and the redeeming power of love with plenty of comical antics. Scary moments do not last long, and they are quickly followed by broad comedy. Tuneful music by Alan Menken and clever lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice give the show a host of hummable songs.
While the original fable is disturbing and frightening, the Disney version never leaves any doubt that the Beast will find redemption and that he and Belle will be together. The Beast is the furry and fanged embodiment of a prince who selfishly denies shelter to a beggar. She puts a spell on him and his servants, which can be broken only after he finds someone to love him. The audience never wonders if Belle is the right woman, only how she and the Beast will fall in love.
Though it is a romantic myth of enchantment, this production of "Beauty and the Beast" makes Belle the single most important character. She is a thoroughly modern woman, a plucky heroine who ignores gossipy neighbors, rejects a boorish suitor, rescues her father from a prince's dungeon and bonds with the Beast when she shares her passion for books with him.
Millie Garvey is both director and choreographer, and she brings a dancer's sensibility to the show. More than two dozen players sing and twirl nimbly through the dances, fights and chases. Dressed as kitchen utensils, including a very witty corkscrew, the dancers sashay across the stage with cheeky abandon in the audience-pleasing "Be Our Guest."
Emma Cullimore's costumes are superb, a rich tapestry of colors and textures. The costumes provide all of the visual razzmatazz, while the set design is spare and muted.
Nicole Hietter brings a superb voice, natural sweetness and unaffected intelligence to her role as Belle. Rob Doyen's Father is earnest without being sentimental. Many of the elements of the plot depend on the believability of Father, and Doyen is always a steady presence. Joel Mingo, more believable as prince than predator, is a wonderful singer.
It would not be a Disney show without clever comic relief, ably provided by the talented Benjamin Britton, who plays Belle's oafish suitor while channeling his inner Elvis-impersonator. Britton also has the acting range to reveal his character's moments of cruelty. He is skillfully supported by his own Sancho Panza, well played by Charles Evans.
Supporting players Dru Silva, Stephanie Chapman, Evann Jones, John Keitel and the endearing Miranda Burke are very fine. Sydney Turner and Kyle Groff have wicked fun with some naughty bits of French farce.
Cheryl Nichols directs the 11-member orchestra. Her talented combo was a bit too loud for the singers on opening night. Some amplification problems and sound system glitches kept the audience from hearing every line.
"Beauty and the Beast" runs through Sunday evening. A Friday show at 4:30 has been added to accommodate ticket requests. The first-night audience included lots of little girls wearing their Belle costumes.