Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Finding New Magic in Beauty and the Beast

The Chanhassen's latest is unexpectedly timely 

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
I have a confession: when I found out Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) was doing Beauty and the Beast, I was disappointed.

No matter that it's been 10 years since the last time they performed this show; I felt like I'd seen it enough to not have to see it again. But I guess I had to discover that it's amazing what fresh eyes will do to a familiar piece.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
I found myself unexpectedly nostalgic as I watched the same story I've been watching since I was a little girl, and found the show to be unexpectedly timely. I'll assume that most readers are familiar with this plot, so I don't need to repeat it. The themes, however, struck me anew and seemed eerily timely for our current political climate: narcissistic, violent villain who will take everything he wants at all costs? Check. A gentle soul and good ruler hidden in ugly beast's clothing? Check. A heroine who is whip-crackingly smart and stands for justice at all costs (and is also gravely underestimated)? Check. A general population of people who are easily stirred to violence and prejudice? Check, check, check.

The Chanhassen hired a ringer cast for this show, and they sell it hook, line and sinker. In fact, it's impossible not to imagine the possibilities of further shows they could do with this cast - Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables please? Think about it CDT.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
Ruthanne Heyward shines as Belle, with the perfect Disney spring to her step and some unbelievably animated hair. Her finest moments moments occur in the second act, with "A Change in Me" and "Is This Home," both of which are gorgeously sung. Robert O. Berdahl is a perfect match for Heyward as the Beast. Berdahl makes the Beast incredibly human despite very heavy makeup, and his lyrical baritone anchors the show. All of Berdahl's solos are wonderful, and unexpectedly moving. This is a different pair than we're used to - Belle is much more confident and brandishes her intelligence like a weapon, while the Beast is far more tender and less confident in himself. It adds new depth to the story and is greatly enjoyable.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
The standout star (how could it not be?) is Aleks Knezevich as Gaston. Knezevich hams it up at absolutely every opportunity and clearly relishes his silly yet sinister role. The best number of the show (unexpectedly "Maison des Lunes" with Lefou (Daniel Hines) and Monsieur D'Arque (David Brinkley)) belongs to him, as his beautiful voice but evil words slithers out of his handsome face. This is a darker Gaston than I'm used to seeing, but he is still very funny - Knezevich knocks his role out of the park, and the similarities between his lines and some of the statements from current presidential candidates will have you giving a double take. Make sure you pay attention to them.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
There is such a wealth of great character parts in this show, and they're all well performed here. Ann Michaels (Babette), Emily Skinner (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Mark King (Lumiere), Keith Rice (Maurice) and Scott Blackburn (Cogsworth) all lend great charm to their parts. Susan Hofflander is remarkable as Mrs. Potts and delivers a ringing rendition of "Beauty and the Beast," causing you to forget all thoughts of Angela Lansbury. It's her finest work yet at CDT and will give you chills.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
A special shout out also has to go to Rich Hamson (costume designer), Susan Magnuson (hair/makeup designer) and Michael Brindisi (artistic director). The Chanhassen is a unique theater space and always has to reinvent what we're used to seeing in Broadway shows when they perform these classics. They have absolutely knocked it out of the park with this staging. The set is simple with very few moving parts, but it gives a sublime feeling of the castle and makes it clear exactly where you are in each scene. The costumes are amazing, and baffling; I honestly can't figure out how the performers get such complicated pieces on and off so quickly, nor where they store them. It's a feat of stage direction, and hats off to this team for some incredible work.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that children's stories (and children themselves, for that matter) aren't stupid or simple things. They have so very much to offer us and a lot of reminders, especially about behavior, that any grownup could stand to bear every now and then. Kids will love this show, and you should take them - but grownups, make sure that you don't miss the message Belle is trying to send you. It's okay to be smart, it's okay to stand up to bullies, and fighting for good things and better lives for the general population is never wasted time. Beauty and the Beast runs through the summer, so you have plenty of time to check it out. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.