Reimagined Beauty And The Beast Brings New Magic To An Old Classic

What has always set theatre apart as a medium is the chance it offers us to not only tell or hear stories but to connect with others through the shared experience of stories. And though the uniquely immediate and uniquely communal nature of the theatre can sometimes get lost, amidst the multitudes of other concerns that go into putting together a season and then putting up a show, both aspects of the art form were back at the forefront of up and coming director Giancarlo Rodaz’s immersive reimagining of modern classic Beauty And The Beast via Area Stage.

Much as the fable itself does, that reimagining begins with a profound physical transformation, in this case of the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio. Set designer Frank Oliva has thoroughly and fastidiously transfigured the theatre space into the castle of the titular Beast, who is cursed at a young age to take on a monstrous form after slighting a beggar woman who turns out to be an enchantress in disguise. 

The audience’s experience begins as each member is escorted through castle doors that open to reveal an expansive and ornate set that spans the entire room. We are then directed either to seats on surrounding risers or at one of three enormous tables that themselves serve as the playing space for much of the performance. Whether the actors are waltzing atop them, striding between them, or jumping down from them to careen around the room, the ample opportunities for creative blocking that this key choice allows ensures a constant flow of invigorating physicality.  

This, in turn, serves to allay just about all potential stagnancy even though the tale being told is one that the majority of audience members likely already know the key beats of thanks to the ubiquity of the classic Disney film that inspired this oft-produced adaptation, which is also why I probably shouldn’t bother rehashing anymore plot specifics. Along with to Rodaz, some of the credit for this engaging physicality also goes to choreographer Irma Becker, who brightens up even lower-key songs like Gaston’s boastful “Me” with amusing, fanciful movement and turns rousing numbers like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” into blowouts entertaining and energetic enough to rival the psychedelic precedent set by their animated counterparts. 

Much of the show’s effectiveness is also owed to an equally excellent cast, who ensure that the show’s emotional weight and vocal quality are up to par with its revolutionary staging. The talented performers bring life, energy, and soul to even some of the new-since-the-film musical numbers I’d described as basically forgettable in my review of a more conventional production. For instance, actor Imran Hylton’s rendition of “No Matter What” while playing Belle’s father Maurice, which usually flies under the radar, here ended up being a genuinely moving tribute to the character’s love for his daughter and the two’s appreciation for one another’s oddity, so much so that it brought the friend I was sitting with to tears.

The central love story that gives the play its title also remains as powerful as ever in the hands of leading actors Maxime Prissert and Yardén Barr. Though Barr’s Belle occasionally comes across a little too much like a typical doe-eyed ingenue as opposed to the quirkier and more headstrong heroine much of the dialogue implies, the actress still ably carries the show as she portrays the princess’s poignant journey. Meanwhile, Prissert gives the Beast’s lonely plight all the soul crushing pathos it warrants while also delivering remarkable vocals, as was especially noticeable in heartrending Act One finale “If I Can’t Love Her.”

Other standout supporting players include Frank Montoto, who impressively evokes both menace and seductiveness in the dual roles of Gaston and Lumiere, Katie Duerr, who memorably lends her strong voice to the title number as Mrs. Potts, and Luke Surretsky, who mainly takes on the role of Potts’ son Chip but also shows a noticeable stage presence even while popping into other ensemble parts.

Stunning costumes by Maria Banda Rodaz and Costanza Espejo round out the show’s top-notch production values and eerie, period vibes while incorporating several non-traditional touches like commedia dell’arte-style masks that cover the faces of the actors playing the enchanted characters.

The implications of watching these masks come on and off in plain view as actors transition from one role to another adds a fascinating layer of metatheatricality to the proceedings. And this thread is enhanced by the fact that the show’s staging makes it impossible for us to entirely lose awareness of our fellow audience members, which I became more aware of after some slightly insane circumstances led to me seeing Act 1 of this play twice: once from center-of-the-action table seats and once from the side risers, which offer a better view of the crowd.

If you’re averse to some fairly frequent neck-craning to catch it all and simply want to absorb the biggest chunk of the theatre-spanning action, the sidelines are most likely your best bet. But if you’re up for a bit more adventure, the table seats do come with some distinctive thrills as audience members are not only up close and personal with it all but occasionally invited to join in on the action after being handed props by the cast.

Though it would be easy to dismiss these moments and some of Rodaz’s other bolder choices as contrarian gimmicks, most of his gambles do seem to pay off not only in terms of immediate entertainment value but in a more profound artistic sense. If the happy ending is a foregone conclusion, the value of watching a tale as old as time unfold becomes primarily the value of the catharsis that can come from the universal feelings its intense stakes and heightened symbolism can unearth. Thus, by emphasizing that symbolic landscape even further with his extensive use of theatricality, Rodaz at once enhances the show’s rich thematic resonances and finds a way to bring a playful energy to the piece that seemed to satisfy the show’s many young viewers as well as whichever older ones were willing to see it through fresh eyes.

Since I consider my childhood obsession with Beauty And The Beast formative enough that I’ve wondered to what degree it might be responsible for my terrible romantic taste, I also made a note about my possible nostalgia-based non-objectivity the last time I reviewed a production, which probably still partially applies. However, I don’t think it necessarily extends to an inability to comment on the ways in which this specific iteration truly upends the template. 

Like Belle reopening her own favorite fairy tale despite the fact that she’s memorized every page, I more or less expected that I’d enjoy another trip through this fantastical fable; but what I didn’t predict is that I would find myself awash in a sense of genuine wonder at the daring, fun, and spectacle of it all rather than simply waiting out the beats. Against all odds, it seems, something of that long-lost magic had been recaptured, and I, ostensibly the impartial critic, had actually found myself immersed.

In any case, I clearly remember thinking something to that effect before I first got up for intermission and began the customary mad dash that would be required if I were to make it in and out of the ladies room and through the concessions line in the allotted 15 minute window. I remember getting up and heading toward the lobby, after which point I, apparently, briefly became the most dramatic thing at the theatre when I collapsed into a rather severe seizure. After awakening with no memory of the actual event and seemingly oblivious to it (and to the fact that I’d slightly cracked my head open and was bleeding rather profusely), I also vaguely remember insisting to the paramedics that were attending to me that I was completely fine and it was really imperative that I continue Act 2 before I acquiesced to a trip to the ER. 

There, it was determined that the whole matter was likely brought on by a combination of a particular medication and flying slightly too close to the sun when it comes to my signature disregard for such biological necessities as “sleep” or “basic nutrition.” In any case, I tell you this particular story only to note that all of the Area Stage and Arsht center staff I encountered handled the situation about as well as could be expected and were terribly nice about the whole thing, and to explain how it came to be that I ended up back in the theatre a week hence not only watching a play but occasionally watching other people watch a play from the perspective that I had initially experienced it, and thus on the particular philosophical escapade about the uniqueness of theatre as shared experience that inspired the first few sentences of this review.

Well, bittersweet and strange indeed. Thankfully, the show has thus far enjoyed enough well-deserved popular success to warrant an added fourth weekend of performances that will commence this Thursday and finish up on September 4th, which means you still have enough time to check it out despite my critical misadventures. It also means that you may not have too much time to grab a ticket to this one of a kind experience lest any of this week’s shows sell out as well, so if you are intent on attending, then be my guest and take the plunge!

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