I’ve seen something like 3 or 4 different live productions of Menken’s Beauty and the Beast. The Sunset Playhouse presents the latest adaptation of the classic musical in Elm Grove this month. This is the first live version that I’ve seen since watching the live-action film version on home video with my wife and daughters. (I saw the touring Broadway production a few years back with my little daughter Amalia, who fell asleep halfway into the show.) Stephanie Staszak has great energy as Belle-a woman who accepts imprisonment with a cursed Beast to save her father.
There are problems I’ve always had with the basic premise of the musical. I’d be tempted to outline some of these basic problems here, but YouTuber Jenny Nicholson did a brilliant job of this in a vlog earlier this year.
It’s always fascinating to see a very specific 1991 visual of the animated film echo into yet another live iteration. Dan Haskett, Glenn Keane and company’s character designs are as clever as ever echoing into Joanne Cunningham’s costume design with particularly clever bits for the candle Lumiere and the Beast himself. Keane’s visualization of the Beast is probably one of them most iconic character designs to come out of the 1990s. It’s simple enough to look powerful on just about any actor...which brings up kind of an interesting point about the production that I didn’t have a chance to get into in my upcoming print review in the next Shepherd-Express...
A More Vulnerable Beast
Robby Benson voiced the original 1991 animated character with power, anger and animalism (doubtlessly aided by really, really top-notch sound design.) The Sunset Playhouse production has tall, thin Keith Smith in the role of the Beast. Far from having the booming animalism of Benson’s voice, Smith has something of a steel detachment in his stage presence that make for a dramatically different dynamic between the Beast, the Beauty and nearly everyone else in the production.
Keith Smith has the brooding solitariness of the character down perfectly, but the lack of believable anger and menace makes him a LOT more vulnerable than he’s usually portrayed. So here he comes across as far less of a monster and far more of a victim. Those who love the original animated version of the musical might have some difficulty with it, but it makes for a much more moody and nuanced piece that actually works A LOT better than any attempt to stage the animated film in live performance.
As powerful as the big budget touring production of the live musical had been, the Beast could never be as physically dynamic onstage as he was in the animated movie. (Even this past year’s live action attempt felt pretty weak when compared against the animated original.) Smith and director Karl Miller had may not have actually planned the Beast’s amplified vulnerability in rehearsal, but it gives the live musical added depth that the even the animated film would have had difficulty with.
Here the Beast is more of a fragile, pathetic outcast than a monster who would rather not be a monster. The lack of gruff, beastly menace makes him more likable and adds an interesting dynamic to the relationship between himself and his cursed servants. The tradition is to have the cursed servants of the Beast fearful of him and what he might do. A more vulnerable Beast lends the cursed servants greater strength. They’re looking after him more out of concern for his own wellbeing. In advancing his love for the captive Belle, they ARE looking out for their own self-interest, but they’re also really concerned about the psychological health of the Beast as well. It makes more sense that they wouldn’t tell Belle about the curse if they’re concerned that doing so would harm the sullen furry loner that they’re tasked with looking after. There’s almost a sense that they’re protecting him from Belle every bit as much as they are protecting Belle from the Beast.
The fascinating thing about this is that the exact same plot and dialogue can make for such a drastically different dynamics simply by having the Beast be a bit less....beastly. He’s not the only man in Belle’s life who is (perhaps inadvertently) portrayed against tradition in this production.
Vanity Versus Confidence in Gaston
Voice actor Richard White trumpeted dialogue from a pompous baritone in the role of Gaston in the original animated film. The animators seem to have taken great pleasure in visually rendering this narcissism to comic effect. The Sunset Playhouse has Tim Albrechtson in the role. Albrechtson effortlessly looks the part of the attractive man even if he tragically lacks unrealistically animated qualities found in his cell animated predecessor. Albrechtson strides tall and confident across the stage in the role of Gaston. There’s a calm confidence about him that almost seems to lack any desire to prove itself to the rest of the world. He's strong and influential. No need to broadcast it any more than the dialogue does.
Calm, quite confidence might seem a little incongruous given the character is as boastful as he is. Albrechtson is able to breathe the lines with calm assertion that almost seems intrinsically disinterested with everything that's going on. In a weird kind of a way, this actually works much better than having him trying to make a show of his prowess. The alpha jerk’s interest in Belle always seemed kind of strange, but portraying him as someone who is actually kind of bored with everything gives it some believability. He’s half-heartedly looking for the one challenge left in the whole village and THAT ends up being the one woman who couldn’t possibly be interested in him.
The lack of enthusiasm does interesting things to other aspects of the story as well. When the village people sing to Gaston in the interest of cheering him up after his initial rejection from Belle, they seem to also be trying to interest him in . . . something . . . anything. So naturally they’re going to try to catch his attention by singing to him about...himself. It’s kind of an interesting angle on a song about what a great guy he is.
The boredom of the character seems all the more menacing in context as the play reaches its final climactic battle. Gaston seems to be interested in killing the Beast...simply because it’s something to do. The big, climactic end comes about simply because a powerful, charismatic guy is...kind of bored. It’s much more of a compelling and terrifying concept than the idea that Gaston wants to kill the Beast for another trophy or to force Belle to love him or whatever. Intended or not, the performances of Keith and Albrechtson make for an approach to the story that amplify the interpersonal dramatics in a way that takes advantage of the unique strengths of live theatre. If you want to bring an animated story to life on the live stage, it’s better to go with the strengths of the live stage than to try to make stage reality look like rubbery technicolor. Even the big budget touring show can only do so much to make the stage look like a cartoon. We all know the animated movie. Now through the end of the month, Sunset gives us something new.
Sunset Playhouse’s production of Beauty and the Beast runs through Dec. 23 at the Furlan Auditorium on 800 Elm Grove Rd. For ticket reservations call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com. A concise, comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd Express.