After a massively successful sold-out run in 2022 at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s intimate Carnival Stage Theater, Area Stage Co’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” returns for a second engagement in 2023. While “immersive experiences” are the buzzword du jour on the streets for everything from the multiple Van Gogh rooms to the various Museums of Ice Cream, director Giancarlo Rodaz and crew were tasked with elevating the experience on the return of their Carbonell Award winning run. Based on the 1991 film of the same name, the show was Disney Theatrical Productions original foray into adapting their beloved movies into stage productions. Although its Broadway run lasted from 1994 to 2007, in an ill-fated move to make way for their adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” audiences were still clamoring for the timeless tale of love and perseverance to return to the stage. Having been a massive fan of their immersive production of “Annie” at their Sunset Place theater combining Brechtian imagery with imaginative staging, I was elated to hear that they were returning with “Beauty and the Beast” for another engagement. Area Stage Co’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” strives to tap into a show meant for audiences of all ages, a true family show meant for the young and young at heart who still find themselves drawn to the classic tale. “Beauty and the Beast” runs until February 26 with tickets available here.
From the moment you are seated in the theater, the house has been transformed into a large, cavernous dining hall of the Beast’s castle. The “stage” area consists of several long wooden tables, flanked by rows of benches on both sides. Frank Olivia’s set is a feast for the eyes with a plethora of little details that guide your eyes across the room. It’s so easy to spend so much time trying to pick apart the nuances of the decor. As you are ushered into the castle by the various cast members performing as wait staff, your program is a laminated menu and you are escorted to either a spot right on the tables or on the benches. For guests wanting the truly immersive experience of being right in the action, I would highly recommend the table seats, but do advise that one’s neck may be strained in keeping track of all the action. If you want a more full scope of the show, then the benches may be a more apt place to view the show. As this was my second time seeing the show from the benches, I can safely say that the blocking and sightlines have vastly improved to where I didn’t have to strain to see performers or have them be blocked from view. When seated at the tables, your “menu” suggests to keep all objects off the table which is highly advised as the show is almost entirely performed on them, acting as long catwalks for actors to hit their marks. The versatility of the tables even features full on dance sequences and even audience participation with beer steins, books and even humanistic machinery. With an illuminated red book representing the rose, umbrellas representing wolves and paintings as trees, ASC’s “Beauty and the Beast” requests a sense of wonder and imagination from its viewers rather than literality from expensive, lavish sets.
As the house opens, the castle staff scatter off stage to perform the opening sequence introducing us to the story of how the enchantment came upon the grounds. The choreography by Irma Becker not only provides levity in dance sequences, but brooding drama by storytelling through movement in the ensemble performing both figuratively and at one point, literally as a well-oiled machine. From her first entrance as Belle, the room is electric as Rachel Marie proves to be a force as the ingénue turned princess. With her strident belt being able to carry melodies from the comedy of her titular entrance song to the dramatic melancholy of “Home,” the actress has an unparalleled range that no doubt carries the production. As Belle’s foil, the Beast is played by Nelson Rodriguez. While his baritenor singing style evoked the vocal stylings of Josh Groban, the acting choices felt more reserved in the Beast’s more aggressive moments. However, this may be a cognitive dissonance on a part of the show’s book by Linda Woolverton, where the Beast in the film did not have any solo songs, in the stage show features new songs by Tim Rice and Alan Menken.
With the ASC production of “Annie,” billed as “Eight Actors, No Children” , frenzied costume changes took place on stage, a similar approach to the secondary characters of “Beauty and the Beast” saw actors receding to the wings to transform off-stage. Frank Montoto as both Gaston and Lumiere distinguishes both roles with not only costuming, but choices distinguishing the chauvinistic womanizer to the charismatic candelabra. Imran Hylton proves to be another highlight of this production serving both as Belle’s wacky yet idealistic father Maurice and the brassy opera diva turned wardrobe, Madame de la Grande Bouche. The cut song “Human Again” gives these two actors along with the rest of the housemates turned furniture their own “I Want” song, a staple of original lyricist Howard Ashman’s repertoire.
In the corner of the room, a small chamber orchestra clad in Victorian wigs and period costume perform the score of the show à la string quartet. With two keyboards switching between pianos, filling in string, horn and woodwinds patches, the arrangements had a lush, full sound that was admirable considering there were only five musicians in the castle. Dr. Frank Capoferri doubling on flute, piccolo and clarinet provided some of the instantly memorable melodies that send me in a “Ratatouille-esque” flashback to my childhood, countered with Amy Zamora’s masterful work on the violin. Percussionist Luis Vargas is a hidden gem of the show, performing not only booming timpani, splashes of cymbals and marching band snares but also a foley, underscoring comedic and dramatic moments with a level of detail that heightens the experience of the show as it unfolds. Music by legendary duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman was originally written for the film. But, due to Ashman’s passing away from complications due to AIDS before the film’s release, new lyrics were added for the stage adaptation by Tim Rice, famous for his lyrical work on “Evita” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” However, Rice lacks a bit of the nuance and the storytelling motivations that made Ashman a renowned lyricist and many of the additional songs could easily be cut to advance the plot along further. New songs like “Me” and “No Matter What” attempt to retroactively flesh out character motivations, but inevitably just add to the show’s run time more than effectively building the story. Yet, Ashman and Menken’s iconic songs are all here, performed masterfully by the ensemble and inevitably that is what audiences who adore the original film are coming for.
As Broadway continues to do a disservice to immersive productions like “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” and “KPop,” it is refreshing to see local theater companies like ASC take on classic material with new ways of seeing. In a time where mob justice and misinformation is flooding our screens, it is so welcoming to be fully present in a space where we can see firsthand how love and empathy can ultimately triumph. “Beauty and the Beast’s” imaginative use of props and staging suggest looking at life from a different view, enhancing the message of the story, that even monsters can have humanity. Area Stage Co. has found magic once again with a tale as old as time, reimagined for a new era. “Beauty and the Beast” runs until February 26 with tickets available here.