Review: “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” dazzles and delights beyond expectation

KALAMAZOO – For artistic directors planning a theater’s season, there’s always a temptation to ride the coattails of an upcoming movie and schedule a stage version of the next potential blockbuster. But this can also be a trap. What would have happened in 2002 if you put on “Chicago” and your Velma Kelly couldn’t hold a candle to Catherine Zeta Jones? Or if you plugged in “The Producers” in 2005, thinking the film version would be a huge success? (It was a certifiable flop.)

Theater relies on word of mouth, and the words directors do not ever want to hear are “see the movie instead.” The Kalamazoo Civic’s Youth Theatre’s “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr.” arrives only one week after Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty” brought in a jaw-dropping $170 million at the box office, making it the proverbial tough act to follow. Even so, the Civic’s “Beast Jr.” casts a beguiling spell of its own, with enormous energy and youthful spirits making this scaled-down take on the Broadway adaptation irresistible.

In her curtain speech, director/choreographer Nicki Poer noted there were 92 young people working on this show — 35 of them onstage, 57 behind the scenes — and they should all be very proud of the results: They are such strong performers that you only remember you’re watching Youth Theatre when you occasionally pause to wonder why the girls are noticeably taller than most of the boys.

Part of the fun of seeing a Youth Theatre show is trying to figure out which cast members have that “star of tomorrow” potential. For that, “Beast Jr.” is a goldmine. Daye Alexander’s Belle is feisty and adorable, and her dazzlingly rich voice — she sounds almost exactly like a young Kristin Chenoweth — is exquisitely showcased in songs like the mournful “Home” and “Something There.” Likewise, Rosie Coryell, who puts a lovely “Downton Abbey”-style spin on the kindly tea kettle, Mrs. Potts, delivers her solo, “Beauty and the Beast,” with the sort of impressive vocal control and sensitivity one would not expect from a high school sophomore.

Ben Eiler is terrific as the Beast, smoothly making the transition from cold-hearted and aloof to courtly and kind. “If I Can’t Love Her,” the Beast’s big Act One number in the original show, is deleted from this version, but Eiler sounds like he could easily have pulled it off if given the chance. Alex Smith has a field day with the vainglorious Gaston, whose determination to marry the unwilling Belle is only exceeded by his desire to remind everyone with ears how incredible he is. As Lefou, Gaston’s biggest fan, Liam Fagan kowtows with comic panache, and Youth Theatre veteran DJ Brannan is delightfully kooky as Belle’s sweet but slightly batty father, Maurice.

And director Poer couldn’t have found a more appealing team than John Culbertson and Hayden Lane-Davies to take on the crooning candlestick Lumiere and the tightly-wound clock Cogsworth. They absolutely shine, as Lane-Davies makes Cogsworth amusingly stuffy and pompous, while Culbertson seems to channel the ghost of the ever-leering French matinee idol Maurice Chevalier as Lumiere ignites a marvelous, show-stopping “Be Our Guest.”

“Guest,” with its wonderfully glittery costumes and can-can choreography, is one of several numbers in the show that demonstrates Poer’s skill in overseeing rather large ensembles. “Belle,” in which Belle announces “I want much more than this provincial life” while her fellow villagers question her love of reading, is equally impressive, as music director Kellee Love Haselton brings together dozens of voices into a cohesive and finely-tuned chorus.

While “Beast Jr.” may condense the source material, it’s certainly not short on talent and it does not pale in comparison to the current screen version; in fact, Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and company might want to watch their backs when these kids are around.