It's beginning to look a lot like Disney in downtown Kansas City with the arrival of the smash hit Broadway musical, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, to Kansas City's Music Hall. The touring NETworks production has spared no effort--with lavish sets, imaginative costumes, and dazzling special effects--to bring Disney magic (with pixie dust aplenty) to one of Walt's hometowns.
Make no mistake about it. This is world-class entertainment, and it's not just for the small fry. On opening night I saw just as many wildly enthusiastic adult audience members as I did members of the Rubber Duckie set. This musical, with its memorable and rousing production numbers and laudable message about looking past superficial appearances to discover the true beauty coming from within, appeals to all ages.
Belle was possibly the first unconventional Disney princess, as her life was not all about waiting for a handsome Prince to come along and rescue her from a life of drudgery. Instead, she strolled along with her nose in a book, wanting excitement and adventure beyond what her small provincial town had to offer. In lieu of wining and dining her, the Beast set her to swooning with his gift of a tome-filled library.
Hilary Maiberger is perfectly cast as Belle, infusing the character with the ideal combination of toughness and sweetness. She can be just as stubborn and determined as the Beast, yet she tenderly cares for him when he is injured and flies to her father's rescue when she realizes he needs her. Maiberger (who also performs opera as well as stage shows) has a tremendous singing voice that is both piercing and true. Her solos were applauded heartily by a seemingly rapturous audience on opening night. I would not hesitate to draw comparisons between her performance and that of young Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
The Oz-like enchantment of this production is not limited to the musical score and the over-the-top sets and costumes, but also to the Characters themselves, especially the Enchanted Objects--humans trapped inside candles, teacups, clocks and spoons. Hassan Nazari-Robati makes a devilishly good Lumiere; James May shines as the fussy, yet loveable Cogsworth; and Kristin Stewart admirably conveys the benevolence of Mrs. Potts. (Jack Mullen played the impish Chip in the opening night performance, and was quite captivating when he was onstage.)
Because his character is basically a caricature (of a dim-witted, narcissistic brute who's "especially good at expectorating"), Tim Rogan (as Gaston) seems to have the most fun onstage, excelling at the broad physical comedy his role demands. Whenever he appears, his slapstick antics steal the show, and Jordan Aragon (as his highly agile sidekick, Lefou) carries out his pratfalls with ease.
Yet Rogan's acting chops are not limited to buffoonery, but also to creating real tension. His taking charge of the angry mob of villagers out to "get the monster" was masterful drama, reminiscent of scenes in the Frankenstein movies.
The emotional transformation of the Beast (portrayed by Darick Pead in the title role in an understated, yet highly effective way) is a more satisfying aspect of the play than his physical transformation at the end (which is almost an anticlimax). You wonder, if the Beast did not change back into a handsome Prince, would he and Belle still live happily ever after, forever in love? (All indications seem to show that they would.)
Perhaps the most sensational number in the production, Be Our Guest, emulates the glamour of the Busby Berkeley musicals, pulling out all the stops with dancing Spoons, Salt and Pepper Shakers, and Dishes, and culminating in an extravaganza of fireworks and streamers. Particular mention must be made of Tony D'Alelio's performance as a Dancing Carpet. His amazing gyrations, accomplished with a good-natured smile, rivaled any contortionist's act in a Cirque du Soleil show.
The only caveat I would have about the opening night performance is that the sound system (including the microphones many of the performers were wearing) needed adjustment. Whenever some of the actors spoke softly (especially as they turned away) or didn't project enough, their voices dropped out altogether, and a number of lines were lost to all except for those lucky few audience members in the first rows. I imagine this problem has already been addressed.
All quibbling aside, this "Tale as old as Time" makes the perfect family musical for Kansas City families during this holiday season, a gift that will live on in memories forever.
The Fine Print
Disney's Beauty and the Beast runs through Sunday, December 15, at the Music Hall in Kansas City. For more information, call 800-745-3000 or go to TheaterLeague.com.