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With a decades-old legacy in our hearts, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has become a tale as old as time, just like its namesake song. The motion picture debuted in 1991, and many young families today are made up of children – and parents – who know it by heart.
At the same time that the new motion picture is in theaters, Virginia Rep’s production debuted this weekend at the November Theatre. Both parents and kids will love it. True to the film and the Broadway version, this classic musical is superbly cast and strikes the right note between foot-tapping dance numbers and poignant messages about love and kindness.
The show opens with a surprise, as the backstory of the curse on the Beast is cleverly revealed with a puppet show. Once Belle, played by Chauncey Trask, graces the stage with her nose in a book, the show begins to deliver exactly what fans of the fairytale expect. Trask is the perfect Belle in song, talent, and persona. She steals our hearts immediately with her loyalty to her father, love of books, and rebuke of Gaston. In the scene when Gaston proposes to Belle, Norah (my 8-year-old daughter) whispered to me with a smile, “Not going to happen!”
As with every Virginia Rep production we’ve seen, the talented performers are top-notch. In addition to Belle, our family particularly enjoyed the comic duo of Lumiere, played by Timothy A. Fitz-Gerald, and Cogsworth, played by Happy Mahaney. Their encouragement of the Beast in courting Belle brought on the giggles from the kids, and the adults laughed at their well-timed jokes and puns throughout the show.
Because this production is running at November Theatre, rather than the smaller Children’s Theater of Virginia at Willow Lawn where we often see Virginia Rep’s shows, we were treated to elaborate staging and fantastic ensemble dance numbers. The absolute favorite in our family was Be Our Guest, which was colorful and well choreographed. The beloved song had surprising moments, reminiscent of The Nutcracker, with performances for Belle given by various kitchen utensils, including dancing cheese graters.
I also really loved the Gaston number. Just as expected, the funny lyrics and lodge setting provide a great opportunity for Gaston, played by Landon Nagel, to flex his muscles and his boorish personality. Nagel nails the Gaston character with his deep tenor and puffed up bravado. His goofy sidekick Le Fou, played by Caleb Wade, tumbles around the stage hilariously. The scene delivered more than expected with the dancing. The pinnacle came at the end of the number with a complicated beer-mug-tapping routine by nearly the whole ensemble that was clever and flawlessly executed.
The entire show, which ran two-and-a-half hours including intermission, lived up to the Beauty and the Beast we all know and love. As far as the kids go, at eight, my daughter is officially past the princess stage, but loved every minute of the show. Henry, four, really liked it, too, but there were moments during the scary forest scenes where he climbed in my lap. On the ride home, the burning question from the kids was how they made the Beast turn back into the Prince at the end. I won’t spoil it here, but the fact they asked underscores the tremendous production quality of this show. The burning question I had was how much my children understood the lessons from the story. So I asked them how we knew the Beast loved Belle. Henry said, “When he started being kind to her.” Message received. Then we all talked about how the Beast demonstrated his love for Belle by putting her happiness before his and letting her leave the castle to go back to her father.
As much joy is elicited by the fantasy, fabulous costumes, singing and dancing in this production there are also poignant messages woven through. Belle and the Beast remind us how cruel people can be to those who are different. As Gaston rallies the villagers to kill the Beast, I was struck by the line in The Mob Song that says, “We don’t like what we don’t understand, and in fact it scares us.” It sounds all-too-familiar.
In the end, of course, love wins. Belle and the Beast save each other. Belle and the Beast remind us that love is about much more than what a person looks like. They remind us that loyalty and kindness make people lovable. And that really is a tale as old as time.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through May 14 at November Theater. Visit Virginia Rep for showtimes and tickets.
Reviewed by special correspondent Katherine O’Donnell