Review: Pitch-Perfect Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” at Paper Mill Playhouse

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; Belinda Allyn as Belle. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Millburn, New Jersey—Disney’s adored, unforgettable tale as old as time, Beauty and the Beast, opened on Sunday night at Paper Mill Playhouse in a triple-threat of enchantment, charm, and polish. If you missed my photo recap from the evening, check it out here!

The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical is Paper Mill’s final show of its 80th anniversary season, which closes on July 3rd with a bang. No, not because it’s the eve of July 4th, but because the staging ends with a literal bang of gold and silver confetti raining-down from the rafters!

An enchanted show? You bet! No one in the modern age does enchantment and fairy tales quite like Disney. Its storytelling is vivid and compelling, and its design is masterly.

The musical draws on the original 1991 animated musical version with peerless music by Alan Menken, witty lyrics by Howard Ashman, and a seamless book by Linda Woolverton. In its Broadway version, a few tweaks to characters and characterizations help modernize the story, and the plot’s streamlined with a handful of additional numbers from composer Menken and lyricist Tim Rice.

The full-bodied score was handled adroitly and lovingly by Music Director Michael Borth, who made every note smooth as velvet and scintillating as a gem.

Alex Sanchez‘s fluent, effervescent, well-sourced choreography tied it all together into a balanced study of style and tempo. An incredibly-talented and inexhaustible ensemble took his moves to the next level. The “Gaston” number set in the pub was high-spirited fun, with beats driven-in by clattering pewter tankards. The “Be Our Guest” number, sung by the Beast’s enchanted castle objects, was a full sampler of iconic styles from Busby Berkeley to classical ballet.

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Gavin Lee as Lumiere and the cast of Paper Mill Playhouse’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Pitch-Perfect Disney Magic Tone and Charm

So here’s the story in a nutshell. (Feel free to skip ahead if you already know it!) An arrogant prince is turned into a beast. The curse can only be broken if he learns to love unconditionally before an enchanted rose dies. Belle, a rural beauty, sets-off to free her father, Maurice, who’s been imprisoned in the Beast’s castle. In exchange, she’s imprisoned in the castle forever. Eventually, the Beast lets her go to seek-out her father, where she discovers that the villagers have branded him as crazy until she shows them proof in a magic mirror. The townspeople grab their pitchforks to kill the Beast, led by the local brawn, Gaston, who wants Belle’s hand in marriage and his rival eliminated. Gaston fatally wounds the Beast, and he dies in the struggle. As the Beast lays dying, Belle professes her love, which breaks the spell, and they live happily ever after!

Director & PMP Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee‘s direction was fresh and well-calibrated with charm, know-how, wit, and lightheartedness. Each character was a slice of humanity, even the swaggering Gaston. The vulnerabilities made the characters accessible—you could find a bit of yourself in each one. When the Beast “dies” (spoiler alert!) you couldn’t help but get choked-up. How’s it possible to feel bad for a beast?! Disney magic!

The strong romance and fantasy themes of the original animation were nicely underplayed, which helped modernize the old-fashioned story. Romance instead was found in the production’s craftsmanship, which could’ve made Franco Zeffirelli’s hyper-realistic style blush. Scenic designer Kelly James Tighe‘s lush scenery filled every inch of the stage against genial backdrops—flagstone walls and stained-glass windows of the rural cottages and the Beast’s castle, and the menacing, tangled forest full of glowing wolf eyes.

Charlie Morrison‘s lighting designs evoked every mood from the bucolic countryside sunshine to the sinister Maison Des Lunes plot twist in Gaston’s Tavern. Leah J. Loukas‘s hair and wigs, Dena Olivier‘s makeup design, and Leon Dobkowski‘s costumes rivaled the top theaters of the world.

And how about that cast? Everyone brought megawatt Disney energy, wholesomeness, and charm, and felt perfectly-matched to their roles. Ensemblists were animated, and the camaraderie and chemistry between everyone felt genuine and authentic. Vocal talent was expressive, and full of gesture and nuance.

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Belinda Allyn as Belle and the cast of Paper Mill Playhouse’s Disney Beauty and the Beast; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Belinda Allyn as Belle could charm the birds from the trees. She was everything you’d want in the bookish, brave heroine: buoyant, expressive, lovable, adorable, charming, and bright. The supple tone and color of her voice was notable in a dazzling “A Change in Me.” The “No Matter What” duet with her father (Joel Blum as an eccentric and kindly Maurice), showed-off a nice chemistry between the two.

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Tally Sessions as the Beast and Belinda Allyn as Belle. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Tally Sessions‘s Beast? Could you not tell by the ram-like horns sticking out of his wild hair? It’s easy to see how Belle fell in love with him despite his flaws: his big personality! Direction here made him an underdog—misunderstood, vulnerable and insecure—which made him heartwarming. He was also given a shared passion with Belle via his vast book collection. In his grizzlier moments, he growled. In his introspective moments, he sang. His “How Long Must This Go On?” aria showed-off a rich deep voice.

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Belinda Allyn as Belle and Stephen Mark Lukas as Gaston. Photo by Evan Zimmerman by MurphyMade)

Stephen Mark Lukas as Gaston perfectly channeled the arrogant cocky alpha’s bland narcissism. He exuded megawatt charm and swagger, and the “Gaston” ode to him in the pub was a stand-out. He filled the role effortlessly, without breaking a sweat.

His sidekick LeFou was played by Kevin Curtis, a pea-cocking powerhouse whose range, skill, energy, and talent transcended the stage. If you missed the headlines in 2017 when Disney rolled-out its live-action Beauty and the Beast film, here’s the backstory: Director Bill Condon presented LeFou as Disney’s first openly gay character, played by Josh Gad. Well, Curtis could’ve played LeFou as a ten-headed Loch Ness monster, and he still would’ve made it brilliant! His solos in “Gaston” against Lukas’s Gaston were generous. He gave all of himself to everyone, including the cast and the audience.

Be Our Guest!

The enchanted objects/servants of the Beast’s castle (imaginative designs by Halsey Onstage) were notable for their naturalistic banter and wit, and great chemistry. Each actor was so thoroughly immersed in their roles, you almost regretted when they turned back into real people as the castle’s spell was broken! The deep humanity and melancholy felt in the “Human Again” number was touching.

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; Gavin Lee as Lumiere. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Gavin Lee as the French-accented candelabra, Lumiere, was like a wisp of smoke. He brought high elegance and charm, with a touch of naughtiness. He was pitch-perfect against Kevin Ligon‘s Cogsworth full of warm, wholesome humor.

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Belinda Allyn as Belle, Donna English as Madame de la Grande Bouche. Photo by Evan Zimmerman)

Donna English‘s Madame de la Grande Bouche had a dazzling presence and authority as an opera singer-turned-wardrobe, who showed-off a flexible coloratura in addition to her wicked humor.

Jenelle Chu as Babette sparkled as the feather duster, and gave a high-spirited characterization to the soubrette role.

(Above: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Stacia Fernandez as Mrs. Potts, Kevin Ligon as Cogsworth, Belinda Allyn as Belle, and Gavin Lee as Lumiere; photo by Jerry Dalia)

Stacia Fernandez as Mrs. Potts sung her famous “Beauty and the Beast” aria in a gorgeous, strong mezzo. The role demanded great poise, and she mastered it superbly. Her chipped teacup son, Chip, as Gianni David Faruolo (alternating the role with Antonio Watson) made the role heartwarming.

From front-of-house to back, there was nothing left for want. What an incredible show to close the 80th anniversary season. Paper Mill Playhouse, here’s to 80 more years! Cheers!

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in a Paper Mill Playhouse production runs from May 29–July 3, 2019.

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