Review: Barn’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is big, bold and beautiful

When Beauty and the Beast hit Broadway in 1994 it was a spectacle the likes of which hadn’t ever before been seen onstage. The first of the Disney animated films sprung to life as a Broadway musical, it transformed the magic Disney formula of classic fairytale that tugs at the heartstrings and teaches a larger lesson with dynamic characters, beautiful songs, and just the right amount of humor — and amplifies it for the stage.

Beauty and the Beast literally set the stage for The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and Mary Poppins, among others, to follow — many of which The Barn Theatre has premiered locally in delightful, winning productions over the years. But it all began with Beauty and the Beast, which The Barn premiered in 2004 and has brought back this season to clamoring crowds and standing ovations. The Barn has all the right players and elements to bring this pleasing show to life in all its cartoonish glory, but with vivacious realness to make it a hit for adults and children alike.

The tight story structure (book by Linda Woolverton with music by Alan Menken and lyrics from Howard Ashman and Tim Rice) balances the familiar lead plot of Beast/prince and princess who must see beyond the superficial to fall in love and save their community with fantastic characters and enormous, swelling ensemble numbers. In Director Brendan Ragotzy’s vision and with the tremendously talented Barn cast and crew, the overwhelming magic is in the details.

Andrea Arvanigian is a convincing Belle, “the most beautiful girl in town,” “a beauty but a funny girl” and perfectly looks and sounds the part of Disney princess as she transforms from thoughtful, bookish daughter to grand belle of the ball. Jamey Grisham is a fearsome, loathsome Beast, at turns vicious and cruel then tender and vulnerable, and creates surprising little moments of comic relief. Together Grisham and Arvanigian evolve beautifully, and gracefully create the primary love story on which everything else hinges.

But it’s the delightful character work from the supporting players and the cartoonishly joyful ensemble that make this show something really special. From Charlie King’s eccentric Maurice, Belle’s father, to the cast of servants turned household objects such as Lumiere, the candlestick casanova (Hans Friedrichs), Cogsworth, the stern grandfather clock (John Jay Espino), Babette, the flirty feather duster (Samantha Rickard), Mrs. Potts, the motherly cockney tea pot (Penelope Alex), Madame de la Grande Bouche, the operatic and vain vanity (Elyssa Blonder), and Chip, the darling tea cup (Aiden Wall), these characters are bold and wonderful — well written and performed with thrilling nuance that makes them more human than cartoon. And their wonderful “Be Our Guest” is a grand highlight of the show with the addition of gold lamé silverware, salt and pepper shakers, serviettes complete with napkin ring belts, and tea cups dancing, twirling, high kicking, and cartwheeling their little enchanted hearts out.

And yet with campy cartoonishness, the ensemble also swells around dynamic duo Gaston (Albert Nelthropp) and Lefou (Ryan Carter Johnson) to wonderful comedic effect. Some of the best numbers in the show are Gaston’s narcissistic ode to himself cum marriage proposal to Belle, “Me,” in which he declares them the perfect pair “much like my thighs,” and “Gaston” a wonderful barroom choreographic delight in which clinking beer mugs create both movement and music. And in addition to Penelope Alex’s gorgeous and touching “Beauty and the Beast,” Nelthropp and Carter Johnson’s “Maison des Lunes” with Patrick Hunter as Monsieur D’Arque is a gorgeous vocal triumph.

The music, much of which is recognizable and comes straight out of the 1991 animated film, is really lovely here, and Music Director Brent Decker leads a tremendous orchestra of six, including terrific violin solos from Negar Afazel.

And of course none of the magic could be pulled off without incredible design. Despite some minor opening night technical glitches that were likely one-off issues, visually this show is a feat. Steven Lee Burright and Samantha Snow’s amazing set includes a winding staircase on a turntable center stage and wings that transform from castle walls to creepy forest with menacing red eyes peeking out, allowing for quick scene changes that also create space for the wonderfully frightening wolves designed by Michael Wilson Morgan.

Mike McShane’s lights run the gamut from twinkling fairy lights on the castle walls to Lumiere’s flickering flames to a backlit stained glass rose above the proscenium to a cyclorama that shifts from red to blue to gold to pink to blue to transform mood and tone. And the costumes by Lauren Alexandra and Goulet Bartholomew as well as wigs by Crysta Menefee Gsellman and props by Sam Rudy are out of this world.

Beauty and the Beast may have been the first of Disney’s Broadway franchise, and there may be bigger spectacles now, but it remains a touching classic, particularly beloved for its bold characters, charming humor, beautiful music and lesson that things aren’t always what they seem and love conquers all. And The Barn shows once again that it’s the place where this kind of magic best comes to life with tremendous talent and innovation — to the delight of adults and children alike.

Beauty and the Beast
Barn Theatre
July 31-Aug. 12