Many people approached the big budget film remake of Beauty and the Beast earlier this year with a wary eye, wondering why it was even necessary to redo a classic. Some people, too, may question why Atlanta Lyric Theatre is staging such a frequently produced musical as this, one that it staged less than a decade ago, as part of the 2008–09 theater season.
It’s a legitimate question, but it’s safe to say that the company’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, running through June 25 at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, has much to recommend.
The “beauty” in question here is the independent Belle (Lauren Hill), who loves books and dreams of faraway places. In her little village, she refuses to give much attention to the romantic gestures of Gaston (Larry Cox), who the other townswomen practically swoon over. When Belle’s father Maurice (George Deavours) goes missing, she later finds him in the castle of the Beast (Logan Denninghoff), a young prince who has been turned into a hideous figure after he turned away a beggar woman because of her appearance. Unless he finds someone who will love him for his inner self, he will die soon, as will the other inhabitants of the castle, who have been turned into household objects such as a teacup and a vanity.
The 1991 animated film — based on the classic French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont — became a Broadway musical three years later, with a book by Linda Woolverton. The Oscar-winning score, featuring music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, remains intact, with such beloved numbers as “Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Something There” and the titular track. Song-wise, what has been added for the stage version feels like filler, however. Not many of the new numbers make that much of an impression, save for a few solos.
Robert Adams makes his Lyric debut as a director with this production, and he runs into a few problems. Some performances are too broad. Cox can certainly belt out a number, but his Gaston is buffoonish. True, the character is meant to be over the top, but he makes him one dimensional. Gaston’s sidekick LeFou, Brian Jordan — part of the strong ensemble of Out Front Theatre Company’s recent The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told — has also been directed to overdo it at times, but on the plus side, Jordan and Cox headline a splashy take of the number “Gaston” that is one of the show’s highlights.
Although the production moves efficiently, it can feel cramped on the Lyric stage, especially in the climactic battle scene, and it’s also disappointing that the music is prerecorded versus having a live band. Also, the wolves that attack Maurice rear up and launch into some odd balletic movement that is more silly than scary.
Overall, though, this works. The two leads are suited to the material. Hill brings a wide-eyed, back-boned approach to the role. She’s no stranger to the part herself, having performed it at Gainesville Theatre Alliance, and her finest moment is an expressive version of “A Change in Me.”
Denninghoff’s Beast is more a goofball than an imposing figure, but he is fine vocally. His costuming isn’t altogether convincing, but he is credible and has a terrific solo in “If I Can’t Love Her.”
The most satisfying aspect of the production turns out to be the supporting cast. Robert Wayne is an enjoyable Cogsworth (reprising his role from the earlier version), and the estimable Marcie Millard lends her customary good cheer to the role of Mrs. Potts. She also delivers a memorable version of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Best of all is Jeff McKerley as candelabra Lumiere, also reprising his (Suzi-nominated) role from the earlier production. He is in fine form. The actor has been enjoying a banner the last few years — he nearly stole Actor’s Express’s recent The Legend of Georgia McBride, and his work as Frau Blucher in the Lyric’s Young Frankenstein was one of the most unheralded performances in recent memory. His comic timing is sublime, and his version of “Be Our Guest” is sleek and enjoyable, with acrobatic moves and action swirling by, inventively choreographed by Cindy Mora Reiser. The number threatens to go overboard but luckily doesn’t.
The Lyric is the only professional Atlanta company devoted entirely to musical theater. Former artistic director Brandt Blocker left six months ago, and in his place is company member Mary Nye Bennett. It’s nice to see that he has left the company in capable hands. Like the new movie version, this — on paper — may seem extraneous, especially considering the shows that the Lyric hasn’t produced over the years, yet even those who walk in a little cynically will find much to entertain them.