“Beauty & the Beast” a Solid Gold Showing

I knew immediately when we pulled into the parking area of the Nancy Bock Center for Performing Arts that one of my dreams had come true! I have long been of the opinion that every performance by the very exceptional Class Act production company deserves to be a sellout. As we searched for a parking space in the jammed lot, I knew that day had come.

Sure enough, when we entered the theater for director, Keith Brumfield’s production of Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast,” it was clear that “full house” status had been achieved. Brumfield, his co-founder, Kathryn Goodfellow, and Assistant Director, Tina Kraft, have every reason to be proud of what they have achieved with the talented youth of Montgomery County.

The glamorous program book and the stage curtain were both graced with the elegant Disney trademark design of the beast and the rose. The lights dimmed as Music Director / Conductor, Rae Moses, skillfully led the excellent 12-piece orchestra in the show’s lovely Overture. (The show’s music is by Alan Menken, Lyrics- Howard Ashman & Tim Rice). Meanwhile, the rich voice of narrator, Philip Talamonti, built the excitement of the Prologue.

The opening moments were technically dazzling. Suddenly the Young Prince (Austin Hunt) is mysteriously transformed into a Beast (Grady Randle) by an Enchantress (Amanda Herwig). She literally flies across the stage. This is accomplished in a way that would make Peter Pan’s Mary Martin and magician David Copperfield very proud. Such mid-air technical magic (Technical Director- Jonathan Shelledy, Special Effects- Josh Campbell, Lighting Design- Nicholas Phillips, Sound Engineer- Andy Davis) would also highlight the final moments of the show when the Beast is transformed back into the Young Prince. In between there is musical magic aplenty.

The familiar plot tells the tale of how the beast must learn the real meaning of inner beauty before a young maiden can give him the love required to break the curse. The action plays out on smoothly gliding set designs (also from Mr. Shelledy) that provide very convincing locations for town, village, cottage, forest, tavern, and castle. Costume Mistress, Lyndel Middleton, has a magical, colorful, and endlessly creative wardrobe for what seems, at times, to be a Cecil B. DeMille cast of thousands overflowing the stage. This may be the beginning of “widescreen” live theater! But back to the music, which begins sublimely with the thrilling and lovely voice of Sarah Franz in the lead role of Belle. In my opinion, this luminous young lady could join a national tour of this show right now. She sings divinely throughout the performance. Her hope to one day become an opera singer seems a very reasonable goal.

Another rich voice is that of Joe McKinney in the humorous role of Maurice, Belle’s eccentric father. Grady Randle’s touching vocal performance, as the tormented Beast, is a musical treat as well. Jimmy Dolphin gives us a lusty and arrogant Gaston, who is fun to despise, as he relentlessly pursues the reluctant Belle. His zany sidekick, Lefou, is well played for laughs by Kirk Van Sickle.

There are lots more laughs and some very fine singing from supporting players Hunter Middleton (Cogsworth), Alex Nelson (Lumiere), Ruthie McKinney (Babette), Nicole Dunton (Chip), Lorryn LaDean (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Larson Mandeville (Monsieur D’Arque), and Staci Talamonti, who gives a lush performance of the title song in her role as Mrs. Potts. For added comic relief, Caroline Dignes, Kelley Peters, and Jessica Heath portrayed the three very “Silly Girls.” A large cast of townspeople and a fierce group of fire-eyed “wolves” added to the fun, while a dozen talented dancers displayed the always-elegant choreography of Bonnie Schuetz, Heidi Sweet, and Jodie Schrier. Credit for the fine make-up of this large and exotic cast goes to talented Kym See.

And enough cannot be said of the excellent ensemble singing and dancing of the very large full cast. The “Mob Song” was fiercely staged right into the audience, and numbers like the dazzling costume parades of “Be Our Guest,” and “Human Again,” just totally knock the ball out of the park, bringing to mind the extravaganzas of Flo Zeigfeld and Busby Berkley. Yes, there were occasional sound problems, some lyrics that were a bit hard to discern, and even a momentary set glitch that revealed backstage areas, but this show was 99% pure gold! How appropriate that earlier in the day Mr. Brumfield had been honored by Interfaith of The Woodlands for his outstanding contributions to youth.

(The Courier    3.9.05)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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