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January 25, 2013

Re-imagined version of 'Disney's Beauty and the Beast' at the Hippodrome

Judging by the continued obsession contemporary society has with physical appearance, kids and adults alike could use a reminder about the skin-deep, eye-of-the-beholder nature of beauty — and about just how beastly some humans can behave toward those considered inferior.

Those messages are being energetically underlined these days at the Hippodrome, where a pleasant production of the popular musical “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” has taken up temporary residence.

This is a different show than the one that ran on Broadway for 13 years and previously visited Baltimore. For this fourth national tour, the original creative team has taken a fresh look at everything. There’s been some downsizing here, some trimming there, and a lot of re-imagined visuals.

Folks who remember the initial version are bound to notice, especially ...

when it comes to the castle, where the prince-turned-beast in this “tale as old as time” awaits his opportunity at transformation-through-love. That enchanted residence, filled with servants who have been turned into furniture and whatnot, is more loosely evoked than conjured.

This streamlined NETworks Presentations staging, said to cost about a quarter of the $12 million poured into the one that Disney Theatrical Productions unveiled on Broadway in 1994, also uses a non-Equity cast. That’s a significant hunk of change saved right there.

The net result, however, does not suggest some bargain-basement bus-and-truck venture. There is plenty of color and old-fashioned charm in Stan Meyer’s new, airy scenic design and Ann Hould-Ward’s revised costumes, more than enough to keep children engaged, I should think.

Young ones may still end up squirming through some of the talkier stuff (adults may find their attention wandering, too, during the two-and-a-half-hour work), but this polished production delivers on entertainment and charm.

At this late date, there is probably no point in mentioning that “Beauty and the Beast,” spawned from the animated Disney movie of that name, is not exactly a masterpiece of invention.

The work could use more character depth, more cleverness in dialogue, more tension and uplift. It’s all about putting surface sparkle on well-worn devices, when it needs to be, in the words of the title song, more “bittersweet and strange.”

Still, the book by Linda Woolverton efficiently retells the familiar tale of the young woman who gradually warms to the monstrous-looking guy in the castle; some humor along the way helps spice that story (dusty puns not so much).

The score features an ear-friendly score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Baltimore-born Howard Ashman (his death in 1991 from AIDS at the age of 40 robbed the entertainment world of a considerable talent) and Tim Rice.

The best of the songs don’t just serve the plot, but come with clever turns of phrase and melody — the witty waltz “Human Again,” sung by the castle servants in Act 2, is the crowning example. And the title song manages a neat trick of being old-fashioned and contemporary at once.

Director Rob Roth mostly keeps the pacing bright in this new staging, although some big ensemble numbers could be twice as effective at half the length, and he gets a well-honed response from the performers.

Hilary Maiberger is an amiable presence as Belle, the “beauty” in the plot who prefers books and dreams of adventure to her simple life. The actress tends to blend into the scenery early on, but she unleashes personality as the dramatic side of the story gets kicking. And, except when pushing her voice in the upper register, Maiberger sings with a sweet, steady soprano.

Darick Pead does a dynamic turn as the Beast, especially in the scenes when the hirsute, inelegantly fanged creature tries out his wooing technique on Belle (Pead gets good mileage from merely attempting to say “Please”). The actor has the vocal chops for the role, too.

As Gaston, the thick hunter who assumes Belle will swoon over his marriage proposal, Joe Hager offers biceps for days and a serviceable voice. The rubbery and tireless Jimmy Larkin cavorts gamely as Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou, though the physical shtick does grow a wee bit tiresome.

The cast also features Peabody Conservatory alum William A. Martin, who did some fine work in local opera productions over the years. He’s quite engaging as Belle’s father, Maurice, an eccentric who ends up the Beast’s prisoner.

Hassan Nazari-Robati seems to be channeling a little too much early Steve Martin, but his performance as the valet/candelabra Lumiere gives the show a welcome kick. James May likewise relishes his opportunity to shine as the butler/clock Cogsworth.

Erin Edelle has the requisite warmth as the cook/teapot Mrs. Potts and she sings “Beauty and the Beast” with welcome understatement. Jessica Lorion (Babette) and, especially, Shani Hadjian (Madame de la Grand Bouche) also make vibrant contributions.

PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome
        

Comments

Beauty & the Beast --kinda like the 49ers against the Ravens and hopefully the Ravens are the Beast(s)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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