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THEATER REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast

More Beast than Beauty: Technical, casting problems plague an otherwise successful performance

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Beauty and the Beast
Presented by Charleston Stage Company
Dec. 6-9, 15, 20-22, 8 p.m.
Dec. 16, 3 p.m.
$26.50-$36.50
Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.
(843) 577-7183
www.charlestonstage.com

Disney on Broadway is a well-established enterprise, but this was not always so. Thirteen years ago, the company was hesitant about converting the mini-stage versions playing at the various Disney theme parks into full Broadway shows. Then comes the article by New York Times critic Frank Rich saying that if Beauty had been on Broadway that year it would have won a Tony.

So began the sixth-longest run in the history of the Great White Way.

After the show closed last year, Disney began licensing its performance at venues around the country and so it finds its way into the hands of Charleston Stage and director Julian Wiles. With a truly incredible set, and the perfect Belle in the form of Autumn Seavey, this production brings the classic to life, though it does not quite manage to achieve the power one expects from a smash musical.

Microphone troubles plagued the show on opening night. This has become a recurring theme at the Sottile, and in the region generally, whenever individual mics are employed. Problems, such as their frequent habit of cutting in and out, might be mechanical in nature, while others, like picking up offstage noises or not being turned on when an actor begins singing, could have a human fault.

Either way, it completely kills the suspension of disbelief that is necessary to truly get swept away by this timeless fairy tale. Some large stages, like the Sottile, demand sound systems so that voices are not swallowed up, but if they are going to be used, they must work reliably.

Another distraction is the casting of Sam Weber as the Beast and Patrick Tierney as Gaston. Both men are in good shape, but are of a slim build and do not fit the image of a hulking beast or a mighty hunter. To their credit, Tierney's Gaston is right on the money when it comes to the self-centered egotistical nature of the character, and Weber, who was so good in Charleston Stage's recent production of Tick, Tick... BOOM! is definitely appealing in the second act as the gentler beast, though his portrayal of the gruff version in Act I needs to move beyond just heavy breathing.

Belle is perfect though. Seavey is a marvel as she moves through the production. Her voice and appearance is a clear match for the role and her performance alone makes the show worth attending. Her transformation from common village girl to happily-ever-after princess and the journey along the way remain the central endearing component of the musical.

Ralph Prentice Daniel brings his experience working at Disney's theme park to Charleston in the form of the talking candelabra Lumiere. Also responsible for choreographing the show, his versatile talents permeate the production, but he truly shines when on stage, appearing to be the class clown of the performance. His happy-go-lucky attitude brings a lot of laughter to the evening whether dealing with the dour Cogsworth or the coquettish Babbette.

The incredible sets by Stephanie Christensen manage to maintain a sense of magic and wonder. Some special effects are used in the production, too, though not all work as well as others. The transformation from Prince to Beast at the beginning is more believable and more simply staged than the complex transition back to Prince at the musical's conclusion.

At the end of the night, this is a long musical, coming in at just around two and a half hours. The familiar songs from the movie are the strongest moments in the show, but the energy fades away during the numbers added for the musical version of the story. It takes the humorous performance by Lumiere and the beauty of Belle to carry the show through to its successful completion.

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