Tale As Old As Time, ‘Beauty & The Beast’, Returns to the Warner on 25th Anniversary of Disney Animated Film

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Tyler Reid von Oy (left) as Beast and Caitlin Mandracchia (right) as Belle debut at the Warner in “Beauty & The Beast.” Credit: Luke Haughwout

Belle may come from a little town, a quiet village, every day like the one before, a little town full of little people. But in Torrington on Saturday night, hundreds flocked to Belle’s little town, which grew big, resonant, beautiful and magical. And the little people in it were a big hit and full of talent. Bon jour! Hello! Welcome back to the Warner, Beauty & the Beast!

The Disney spirit was alive in the main stage auditorium for young and old, including at least one little girl wearing her golden Belle dress and many people – including this reviewer – illuminating the theater with red glowing enchanted roses purchased in the lobby. The production is a wonderful version of the beloved Broadway fairytale musical that celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Disney animated film.

Producer Sharon Wilcox said the Warner has been waiting with excitement to do the show again after producing it years ago on the main stage. The rights became available again this year at the close of the Broadway tour in July, so it’s been a popular choice already for community theaters in Connecticut. Two others – Theatre Guild of Simsbury and West Hartford Community Theatre – will open their productions of the show next weekend as the Warner closes theirs.

Director Donald Birely is no stranger to Beauty & The Beast having toured professionally and nationally as a cast member in the musical. And now he has enchanted the Warner stage with his vision for the story.

Instead of a voiced over intro, he chose to have Jim Wood, playing Maurice, address the crowd, with the narrative. That approach made Maurice more invested in the story and highlighted his role as a father.

As we listened, actors aesthetically pantomimed the action. We see a young prince turn away a hooded beggar woman when she offers him a rose in exchange for shelter from the bitter cold, but she warns him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within. When he refuses to help again, the old woman transforms into a beautiful, glittery enchantress. The prince tries to apologize and seeing there is no love in his heart, she gracefully waves her arms, casting a spell that turns him into a beast and enchants the castle. He has to shows he can love and be loved in return before the last petal on the enchanted rose falls to break the spell or he will be doomed to be a beast forever. 

Then the dark, mystical opening transitions into a much brighter, simpler setting in a cheery small town for “Belle” – one of the most popular songs in the musical and Disney animated film. It introduces one of our culture’s most beloved Disney princesses, our grounded and bookish female protagonist.

The ensemble in this show really puts in a lot of energy and thought to their characters to flesh out the story and setting. Individual soloists were expressive and talented singers, however some were less audible, expectedly the ones who did not have microphones in “Belle.”

There were also some audio glitches in the beginning with some of the mics and delayed sound effects. Gaston’s gunshot blast was delayed on his entrance and many ensemble members noticeably reacted early in anticipation of the sound effect. Wilcox had made a reference to minor audio technical difficulties before the show started. However, the crew seemed to resolve those issues early in the production.

Beauty & The Beast is known for its beautiful and robust orchestral score by Alan Menken, who has written a lot of Disney songs. The dynamic instrumental opening is an imperative and powerful element to lead into the story, but there were were moments when the entire orchestra wasn’t together and lagging a little bit. When in tempo and in sync with the performers, the orchestra – stationed below the stage – produced quite beautiful instrumentals, led by music director Holly J. McCann. However, tempo issues sporadically arose at later points in the show when it seemed like the orchestra was behind tempo, meaning the singers on stage had to slow down to follow them as opposed to the other way around – particularly in the mirky “Maison de Lunes.”  That being said, the orchestra mostly enhanced the onstage vocals, adding musical layers to the songs. The horn section was triumphant when it had the melody.

Speaking of music. Wow! The vocals in this production are top notch, some performers on par with the professionals. Warner newcomers Caitlin Mandracchia (Belle) and Tyler Reid von Oy (Beast) had strong acting and musical chemistry, blending well and acting the songs in a way that made their characters easy to connect to and real.

When Beast’s lack of manners show through as he guzzles his soup down like he’s drinking from a cup, Mandracchia cleverly and adorably mimics his eating habits in a dainty Belle way. The awkwardness as Beast tries to be a gentleman around Belle, with the counsel of Cogsworth and Lumiere, create some preciously funny moments.

Mandracchia’s voice was clear, sweet, strong and hopeful like Belle’s persona. She did a good job at being politely defiant during Gaston’s proposal in “Me” and her expressions and sarcasm said it all about how repulsed her character was at the prospect.

Reid von Oy’s voice was harmoniously booming – sheer music royalty. Do The Three Tenors need another? He was foreboding as Beast toward the beginning of the story. He embellished his character’s wild, animalistic side in every hunched-over, skulking and bounding movements across stage and up stairs.

Mandracchia tugged at our hearts with the forlorn, beautifully sung “Home.” Beast captured our sympathy with his impassioned and emotionally introspective solo to close Act I, taking an impressive risk by singing his last note higher than written.

Every performer had stunning vocals -enhanced by an off-stage choir – particularly other lead characters like operatic, fluttering soprano Anne Kanter (Madame De La Grande Bouche, the wardrobe), Rebekah Derrick as the motherly and hospitable teapot with a British accent (Mrs. Potts), Eric Linblom as the tightly wound and often flabbergasted, by-the-books head of household (Cogsworth, the clock) and the bellowing, belting Michael King as Gaston. Wood was eccentric and lovable as Maurice and also sang very well.

You could say the Warner’s Gaston was the King of comedy in this production. King put an exaggerated self-absorbed, macho and Dudley Do-Right oblivious take on the character that uniquely made our villain a vehicle for comedy alongside town fool sidekick Lefou (Richard McKenna). The duo made for a strong comedy team, infusing some scenes with slapstick physical humor. They also took risks. King had McKenna practically dangling backward from the edge of the passoral stage extension above the orchestra. McKenna was frantic, manic and clownish as Gaston’s fanboy. His hair had an electrified look to it that brought out his eccentricities with the help of his expressions between stage beatings from Gaston.

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Gaston (Michael King) surrounded by his Silly Girls (Jean Marie McGrath and L Nagle on the left and Cassandra Whitehead and Ashley Billings on the right. Credit: Luke Haughwout

Jean Marie McGrath, Cassandra Whitehead, Ashley Billings and L Nagle also provided some comedy as the ditzy, swooning Gaston admirers. He can do no wrong by them. All of them were fabulous dancers, also featured as enchanted napkins in “Be Our Guest.” While not pertinent to the plot, their caricatures accentuated Gaston’s tunnel vision despite occasional distractions in his private dalliances with the ladies. They are his cheerleaders and he is like the most popular athlete in school.

“Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are the highly anticipated numbers to see in this production with the most choreography and physical/musical energy. Matthew Farina choreographed the show. The mug clinking added extra percussion to the song and brought it uptempo. All actors had to clink at the same time for that to be effective and they were in time. 

Choreography aside, “Be Our Guest” was also fun to watch because of the costumes – including but not limited to Rockette-like napkins in flowing dresses to silverware servants, China plates, salt and pepper shakers, spatulas, a sugar bowl, a cheese grater and a dining room rug. Plus there was Lumiere (Rick Fountain), our comical host and ladies’ man, rather candelabra, with electric lights he could flicker to turn in his flames. Becky Sawicki was sexy, sassy and flirtatious as his lover, Babette. Her tall wig and feathery dress brought out the feather duster in her. Her tango with Lumiere brought out their constant lovers’ quarrel. Derrick looked refined and proper in her teapot costume as Mrs. Potts. Jake Kordas was adorable as the seemingly floating head of Chip when Derrick pushed him out on a cart. Cogsworth’s dignified clock attire was very time-appropriate.

Costume designers Renee C. Purdy and Aurora Montenero did a stunning job with wardrobe. You could hear audience members gasp in delight and amazement when Belle appeared at the top of the stairs in her signature sparkly, yellow ball gown cascading down the stairs for waltz number “Tale As Old As Time,” sung endearingly by Derrick as Mrs. Potts with much vibrato and delicacy.

Fur, fangs, tale and prosthetic facial features turned our prince into a hideous beast. Even Beast looked handsome in his blue fancy attire. 

Wigs, hair and makeup were also crucial to the costumes – also handled by Purdy and Montenero. The makeup – particularly for painted opera beauty Madame De La Grande Bouche (Kanter) – was stunning. Marrianne Parks assisted with makeup.

This was the most visually impressive production and set I’ve ever seen at the Warner. And that’s saying something because there have been many. The castle, complete with staircases and balconies, allowed more depth and levels to the staging of scenes like “Be Our Guest” – which also had a lot of lights and a drop down illuminated “Belle” sign. Certain pieces like the library changed the vantage point of the castle. The fountain was a nice centerpiece to the village and the barrel seats brought out the pub feel in “Gaston.” SceneWorks Custom Sets & Scenery is credited for stage design and Kevin Hales and Steve Houk served as House Carpenters. 

Maurice steered his electronically powered  invention vehicle around stage smoothly. It was a very intriguing and well designed contraption!

Howling sound effects and projected evil eyes represent the wolves Maurice, Belle and Beast encounter and Maurice’s offstage yells signify the attack on him. Chris LaPlante designed the sound and LBC Lighting designed the lighting.

One of the scenes I most looked forward to was the final Beast transformation scene. On Broadway you see the Beast flying and spinning through the air seemingly changing before your eyes back into the prince. Fight choreography between Beast and Gaston and an implied offstage fall by our villain that also takes Beast out of sight temporarily leads into the pivotal last chance for Belle to break the spell as Beast is dying. Every moment the Beast was back on stage for that scene, he had his back to the audience and his face obscured. His voice sounded different in this part so it looked like a double was used. However the transformation remains a mystery as a machine pumped fog to obscure our vision and magically reveals the prince.

See the magic for yourself on closing weekend Nov. 10-12. Visit warnertheatre.org for more information on the production and purchasing tickets.

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