Sunday, December 4, 2022

"Beauty and the Beast" at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

Here's one thing I'm grateful for this season: after more than three years, the Ordway Original is back! As Executive Producer of the "Broadway @ the Ordway" series Rod Kaats noted in his pre-show speech, the Ordway is one of the few theaters in the country that both hosts Broadway tours, and does original Broadway-scale productions using local talent. There have been some great tours coming through the Ordway (a pre-Broadway SIX, and a little show called RENT in 1997 and many years thereafter), but my favorites have always been their original productions, because #TCTheater absolutely has the talent in cast, creatives, and crew to build a big beautiful show. In 2019 they were on a roll with a fan-freakin-tastic 42nd Street and a terrific Smokey Joe's Café. The extended pandemic intermission interrupted that momentum, but now they're back with a Disney favorite - Beauty and the Beast (which they last produced back in 2019, shortly pre-blog). It is everything I expected it to be and more: an incredibly talented and mostly local cast, a fabulous 12-person pit orchestra, and an all-around impressive design, combining into one enchanting theatrical experience for all ages. The show continues through New Year's Eve but it's a popular one, so book your tickets now and head to downtown St. Paul, which is particularly beautiful this time of a year, for a magical night. Click here for the official ticket site, with prices ranging from $50-$150.

For those of you who are only familiar with the 1991 movie (which, BTW, came out when I was a teenager and with which I might have been a teeny bit obsessed), the 1994 stage adaptation stays fairly close to the plot and includes all of the beloved songs like "Be Our Guest," "Gaston," and the title song, plus a half dozen or so new songs that flesh out the characters of the Beast, Belle, and her father. After complaining about her provincial life, Belle finds adventure by rescuing her beloved father from an enchanted castle and taking his place as the Beast's captive. The only way the Beast and his animate object servants can return to their human selves is if he learns to love and be loved in return. But who could ever learn to love a Beast? Against all odds (and because this is Disney), Belle and the Beast eventually fall sweetly in love, he lets her go, and she comes back to save him from the angry townspeople. The curse is broken and they all live happily ever after thanks to the transformative power of love.*

Director Michael Heitzman first directed this show at an outdoor theater in Utah about a year and a half ago. Rod Kaats saw it and worked to bring it to the Ordway, complete with sets and costumes (read the full story in the StarTrib). It has been adapted for the space, and of course now includes our abundant local talent. The whole show is full of such life, energy, and joy that it leaves you breathless, but with a few quieter moments for us (and the hard-working ensemble) to catch our breath. 

Rajané Katurah as Belle (photo by Dan Norman)
As the first half of the title couple, Rajané Katurah absolutely shines as Belle. She's been making a name for herself on multiple stages around town over the last four years or so, and it's so wonderful to see her in a lead role at center stage in a big theater, where she belongs. She so completely portrays the strong, smart heroine who stands up to a beast and an angry mob for herself, her family, and what she believes in. Rajané's voice is truly incredible, and in particular, the songs written for the stage adaptation sound like they were written specifically for her; they allow her voice to soar. In casting her in this role (and in casting the entire show), the Ordway continues their recent trend of color-conscious casting. It gave me chills to see a Black woman play a role that is usually played by a White woman and receive the biggest ovation of the night; I can't imagine how it must make little Black girls (and women) feel to see themselves represented in the princess and the heroine on stage.

Nathaniel Hackmann as the Beast
(photo by Dan Norman)
Our amazing Beast, Nathaniel Hackmann, is new to #TCTheater but not new to this show, having played both Gaston and the Beast multiple times. He's so believable both as the mean and scary Beast, and also as the sensitive and lonely Prince falling in love. What's hard to believe is that he can sing so gorgeously with multiple prosthetics including two big fake fangs hanging off of his lower lip, but he does. Rajané and Nathaniel have great chemistry that turns from prickly to tender, and convey the best thing about this love story (despite the Stockholm syndrome of the situation) - that Belle isn't afraid of or intimidated by the outward Beast and doesn't bend to his will, instead standing up for herself and eventually seeing the man he is inside.

Highlights in the supporting cast are, well, everyone, but to name a few: Regan Featherstone is the perfect pompous Gaston that we love to hate, the nimble Rush Benson is hilarious as his (literal) sidekick Lefou in a fantastically physical performance, beloved #TCTheater veteran T. Mychael Rambo is warm and wonderful as Belle's eccentric father, and all of the enchanted objects are truly charming, including Phillip Taratula as the stern butler/clock Cogsworth, #TCTheater favorite Max Wojtanowicz who is just radiant as Lumiere, Jorie Ann Kosel as the flirty feather duster Babette, local theater and music star Jamecia Bennett as Mrs. Potts (she has a way of singing a song and making you feel like you're hearing it for the first time, which she does with with the title song, a showstopper moment), and Thomasina Petrus, perfectly cast as the former opera singer. The fabulous ensemble, who all multiple characters including townspeople and various animated inanimate objects, is full of too many familiar faces to mention (including Jon Andrew Hegge, the one cast-member reprising his role from the Ordway's 2009 production, as the insane asylum proprietor Monsieur D'Arque).

trust me, you want to be their guest (photo by Dan Norman)
The design of this show is out of this world and combines for many jaw-dropping moments, the greatest of which is "Be Our Guest," which is truly a feast for the eyes. Singing and dancing plates, utensils, salt and pepper shakers, and other objects, each one more amazing than the last, until you don't know where to look anymore because there's amazement everywhere. The costume design, the choreography (leaping over tables and acrobatic rugs), the sets, and the props all combine to create a delightful spectacle. The other highlight is the Gaston song, featuring an incredible dance with performers holding tin cups and clinking them high and low in perfect rhythm. And the dancing/fighting wolves, running down the aisles and leaping up from the pit, are truly awe-some. (Choreography by Robbie Roby, with local choreographer Renee Guittar keeping things tight through the run of the show).

The massive set includes multi-level structures on both sides of the stage, two rotating staircases and other large pieces like Belle's cottage, all enhanced by still and moving projections of the countryside, the castle, the view in the magic mirror, and other scenes. The many many costumes are elaborate and colorful, from the featured enchanted objects, each one detailed and specific, to the period costumes of the village townspeople, to Belle's gorgeous gowns, especially the one she wears for the dancing scene. Instead of that iconic yellow gown from the movie that you expect to see (and that many children in the audience are wearing), it's a soft peach covered in diamonds or stardust or some magic that makes it shine and shimmer, perhaps the most stunning sartorial creation I've ever seen on stage. (Scenic and projection design by Adam Koch and Steven Royal, costume design by Ryan Moller.)

Last but not least - the music! I know the movie soundtrack by heart from my teen years (I'm pretty sure it was the first cassette tape I owned - yes I'm that old and that nerdy), and it's all there, but live! With some additions that help fill out the story and the score, including the charming "Human Again" for the enchanted objects (written for the movie but cut), and new songs (written by the film's composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice, who replaced the recently deceased Howard Ashman) like "Home" and "A Change in Me" for Belle "If I Can't Love Her" for the Beast. Local Music Director Elise Santa directs the 12-person local orchestra (in a traditional pit with catwalks over it to bring the cast closer to the audience), and it all sounds gorgeous (original Music Supervisor David Holcenberg).

Well, I've run out of complimentary adjectives, so I'm going to end this review. Beauty and the Beast is a triumphant return to the tradition of Ordway Original Productions, borrowing some elements from a previous production, adding new elements, and overflowing with local talent. I look forward to many more Ordway Originals in the coming years (including hopefully that production of RENT directed by Martha Banta, assistant director of the original Broadway production, that was planned for summer of 2020).

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of the 2016 production at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.