Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009

As I was leaving the Mac-Haydn after seeing their first public performance of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast I observed a child of about seven or eight leaping straight up and down in great glee exclaiming “I just loved that show! It was so exciting!” My opinion was that it was rather slow-paced and lacking in drama and excitement, but then a moment from my own childhood flashed before my eyes.

I was six years old and refusing to enter the gymnasium where the fourth grade was waiting to entertain the school with their production of Snow White because I knew it would be too scary for me. My teacher went into the gym and produced Janie Feldman’s big sister, who was playing the witch, so that I would not be afraid, but that didn’t help. Now she was my friend’s sister in a costume, but when she stood up on that stage with that poisoned apple in her hands she would be a witch and I would be scared.

At the Mac-Haydn, Grown-up Gail wanted the Beast to be much scarier and Belle to possess a tragic flaw or two herself, but six-year-old Gail would have been appalled. And Disney created this show for easily scared six-year-olds, not for jaded 50-something theatre critics. This is not “Fun For the Whole Family,” this is show to take the children/grandchildren to – which is not a bad thing to offer in the month of July, when lots of families are looking for kid-friendly fare.

Beauty and the Beast is a good story, but Disney has, in true Disney fashion, stripped it of all but its most basic and boring elements. Our heroine Belle (Laura Hartle) is brave, clever, and, of course, beautiful. She loves her father, is an avid reader, rejects the advances of the obviously abusive Gaston (Jon Reinhold), and stands up to all threats with aplomb. I noticed that Belle fought back when attacked by wolves in the forest, while her father, Maurice (Charlie Robertson), ran impotently in circles squealing “Help! Help!” We can see who wears the pants in that family, only, of course, Belle doesn’t wear pants – only pretty dresses and prettier ball gowns, miniature versions of which can be lucratively marketed in the Disney stores.

Our hero, the Beast (Ben Jacoby), is all growly and hairy. He is grumpy because, when as a young and handsome Prince he behaved like a shallow fool, he was punished for it by a wise, but beautiful, enchantress (Kendall Chaffee-Standish).

My younger son was three when the Disney film was released and he called it Beauty OF the Beast. He found the Beast beautiful in the same way that humans find fire beautiful – because it is powerful and scary and deserving of our respect. And he was right, the Beast is by far the more interesting of the two leading characters because he is not perfect, because he can be dangerous, and because he deals with all those real human emotions that seem to elude Belle, like fear, doubt, and rage.

Not having paid much attend to all this Disney nonsense for the past few decades (no, I have never watched the film) I was struck by the Beast’s final line when, revealed once again as the handsome Prince, he turns to Belle and asks “Don’t you recognize the Beast within the Man who stands before you?” Wow! No, “Hooray, I’m not a Beast anymore” but “See, I’m still a Beast inside.” Owning your inner Beast – what a concept!

Hartle does the best she can with the boring goody-two-shoes that is Belle – she looks pretty, sings nicely, and fights wolves like a pro. Jacoby is really interesting as the Beast, giving him an animal energy born of frustration and fear. He is vocally perfect for the part, and thankfully his heavy facial make-up doesn’t prevent him from projecting.

For some reason I didn’t quite catch, the enchantress not only puts a spell on the Beast, but on all his household staff as well (being a Handsome Prince he lives in a Big Castle and requires a large staff) causing them all to morph from people into objects. Unless the Beast can find a girl to love who loves him in return before the last petal of the enchantress's rose withers and falls, they are all doomed, doomed, doomed.

Wringing their hands, if they still have hands, are Jeffrey Funaro as Lumiere, the Candelabra; Quinto Ott as Cogsworth, the Clock; Monica M. Wemitt as Mrs. Potts, the Teapot, and George Franklin as her son Chip, the Teacup; Karla Shook as Madame de la Grande Bouche, the Wardrobe, and her sister Kelly L. Shook as Babette, the Feather Duster.

These are all proven Mac-Haydn talents, and they are fun to watch, even if they are somewhat wasted in these cartoon-inspired roles. Funaro and Ott get the best deal as their characters are more fleshed out and get more stage time. Many of the larger costumers are rented, and they are very clever and attractive. The less massive ensembles were designed by Dale DiBernardo and made at the Mac-Haydn costume shop.

Reinhold and Seth Eliser as his side-kick LeFou* provide plenty of comic relief with their Mutt and Jeff routine and knock-about comedy.

It is scary enough when a dozen or so ferociously dancing bodies get going on that tiny stage. It is another thing entirely when those bodies are dressed as a nine course dinner and an entire castle full of furniture. Let’s just say that the dancing is minimal by Mac-Haydn standards because of the logistics. Be Our Guest is the big tour-de-force production number, and it is astounding. I was serenaded by a singing champagne glass while the cutlery, the salt and pepper shakers and a quartet of table napkins cavorted on stage. What fun!

This is the fun part for us grown-ups, watching how the theatrical magicians at the Mac-Haydn manage to create live teapots, wardrobes, mantle clocks, and an entire dancing turkey dinner in that small space. In a large proscenium theatre there is enough space between the audience and the action to get away with a few tricks. At the Mac-Haydn everything happens up close and personal, live, in three-dimensions. There is nowhere to hide.

Director Doug Hodge, choreographer Kelly L. Shook, Andrew Gmoser who designed the lighting and, with Kevin Gleason, the sets, sound designer Luke Krause, and musical director Josh Zecher-Ross and his assistant Josh Smith have all worked incredibly hard to fit this enormous show with all its special effects into the Mac. They succeed more often than the fail, and that is the opinion of Grown-up Gail. Six-year-old Gail would no doubt have been thrilled (and terrified) by the whole thing.

My other six-year-old theatre memory is being taken by my parents to City Center to see a revival of Brigadoon. That was not scary to me, it was fascinating. How did they make that town come out of the mist?? Now, I know the answer, but then it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen, so amazing that the memory of it is still fresh in my mind nearly half a century later. I am sure that many young audience members will leave the Mac-Haydn with similar life-long memories of theatrical astonishment to cherish.

The thing that made my experience at Brigadoon so exciting was that I knew that it was live. Real people were making this happen right now, in the same room with me. This is why children need to be exposed to live theatre, and why shows like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast which are geared specifically to them, are so important. Even if they make curmudgeonly critics grumble a bit.

Disney's Beauty and the Beast runs through July 26 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and even at that length all of a the small children seated near me sat spellbound. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.

* I have a friend who lives and works in the theatre in Houston, Texas, which is where the stage version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast had its world premiere at the Theatre Under The Stars in 1993. In those ancient days the latest social networking phenomenon was Newsgroups, services that allowed groups of people to share e-mail on topics of common interest. So I was in on all the chatter as this show opened. One day I received an e-mail containing this single sentence: “The doormat is also LeFou!” Until yesterday I had no idea what a “LeFou” was and so for more than 15 years that sentence has remained laughably obscure to me and my family. In fact it became a code phrase for something too complicated to bother explaining. But by intermission at the Mac-Haydn, I suddenly understood and became convinced that the same actor WAS playing both LeFou and the Doormat. Imagine my excitement! It was like cracking the DaVinci Code! Except that I was wrong. Seth Eliser was playing LeFou and Wesley Urish was playing the Doormat. But I understood how the roles could be doubled. When I arrived home my husband asked, “How was it?” and I replied “The doormat is also LeFou.” He understood perfectly. copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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