It feels like we’re seeing BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for the first time.
That’s what I said to my seatmate during intermission at The Garden Theatre, both of us millennial Disney fans who’ve encountered Mickey’s take on the tale countless times across stage, page, and screen.
Director Roberta Emerson has devised an intriguing way to approach the story’s outer framework without altering the libretto. The story opens not with an unseen narrator recounting the enchantress’s spell on a prideful prince and his servants but instead with a young Black girl (played sweetly by Gabriella Milchman) who opens a storybook in a modern-day bedroom and reads those words aloud from it, soon seeing herself in the story – just in time for the glorious opening notes of “Belle.”
When the eponymous heroine emerges on stage, it is Da’Zaria Harris, whose Belle is the polite but self-assured woman we all know, only funnier and bolder than Belles of the past. In subtle gestures, distinctive line readings, and knock-out vocal choices, Harris takes us by surprise. Sometimes it’s as little as lifting two fingers when Mrs. Potts asks how many lumps of sugar. (Has any other Belle actually answered that question? Inspired!). Or something more noticeable, like the way Harris ends “A Change in Me,” a song she belts with goosebump-giving emotion but then thoughtfully pulls back on in the closing notes to let the lyrics stay center stage.
Harris is not the first Black actress to portray Belle; indeed it was Toni Braxton whose 1998 casting inspired Alan Menken to add “A Change in Me” to the show. But under Emerson’s direction, this may be the first BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – at least in my experience – to consider how a Black director’s perspective might shift the way the story is presented on stage.
“It’s a tale as old as time,” Emerson writes in the program, “but time changes, so why don’t our tales or how we tell them?” That’s the art of adaptation summed up in a single question. It’s enough to justify any of the recent remakes and revivals, but the change she’s talking about specifically in the Garden’s production seems special, if subtle.
“As a mother with two little girls, whom I’m raising to be two strong BLACK WOMEN,” she writes, “I don’t think any little girl should ever feel like they are outside of the magic.” That intention clearly informs the whole production, and yet remarkably this still feels like a loving and faithful presentation of its source – just with a distinctive posture.
It’s a stacked cast, but I can’t go one paragraph further without highlighting Ayọ̀ Jeriah Demps, whose turn as Madame de la Grande Bouche is singularly worthy of a ticket for you and all your friends. Their line readings nearly bring the house down, and there was one scene where I came this close to losing it with laughter. Demps’s singing voice is astounding, smoothly gliding up into the Audra McDonald stratosphere like a state-of-the-art elevator. The singing wardrobe already has an expanded role in the stage musical relative to the animated film, but Emerson has given Demps even more to do, turning the title song into a duet between them and Whitney Morse’s polished Mrs. Potts.
Surprisingly, the Garden’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is even more given to comedy than the most recent North American touring version of the show, which under the reins of the much-reviled NETworks Productions is a broad and under-budgeted mess that panders almost exclusively to the youngest theatre goers. But here, the comedy is sharp and smart and piercingly funny. I have never laughed so much watching BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and yet the story’s core dramatics are as well-served and honored on this stage as in the original.
Shane Bland brings a Broadway burnish to his Beast. It is no surprise to open the program and find a long list of Broadway, television, and other high-profile credits by his name. His Beast is a blend of anger, earnest empathy, and humor – a strong and well-rounded portrayal that has no hint of the NETworks cartoonishness.
Zeshan Khan gets Gaston’s oafish villainy just right. He’s flanked at all times by Logan Lopez, whose LeFou is more of a grounded straight man than we might expect. In an era where the world seems very interested in reconsidering LeFou, Lopez’s is yet another different and effective take on the sidekick (diminutive no more).
Nate Elliott and Ricky Devito Jr. have strong chemistry as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively. Broadway’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST adds a story layer wherein the enchanted objects gradually become less human-like with time, and it falls on Elliott to dramatize both the fear and the funny in that. He’s as right for his character as Devito is for Lumiere’s lusty showmanship, capably leading a boisterous “Be Our Guest” and giving its bridge a hilarious bent. Annabell Mizrahi meets his energy with a fun and feisty turn as Babette.
Michael Morman, who has become something of a regular at the Garden and whose return here is certainly welcome, brings warmth and credibility to “crazy old Maurice,” while Eko Elliott earns many an audible “aww” as the adorable little Chip.
Two members of the ensemble stand out in featured roles that I dare not spoil for you but come as an unexpected delight: Michah Zervoa and Zuly Pagán Cabrera. Keep an eye on Zervoa during “Gaston” too for ensemble dancing that really sells the song’s drunkenness and for strong ensemble work throughout. Rounding out the talented company are Giancarlo Osorio, Sydney Barker, Stefanie Diaz, Amanda Breivogel, Morgan Hairston, Keenan J. Harris, Jacquelyn Spicher, Tanner Roncace, Micah Zervos, and Dayja Le’Chelle.
It’s an impressively grand production for a relatively small regional stage, with storybook costuming worthy of Walt Disney World’s neighborhood, courtesy of Daisy McCarthy Tucker. While some costume elements are fantastical and French, others seem tastefully to evoke Africa (see Maurice’s robe and trouser, coupled with a touch of steampunk to accentuate his inventor’s flair). Alan Menken’s score sounds full and flush from the horns and strings in Bert Rodriguez’s live five-piece orchestra. I will confess I could not quite discern whether a backing track amplified the orchestration; if not, the musical achievement here is doubly impressive. In either scenario, Anthony Narciso’s sound design is worthy of the story and its score.
Kathy Wiebe’s lighting and Joe Klug’s scenic design come together for impressive moments, like the way the light dims as the doors flanking the village backdrop close ever so gradually to subtly suggest that Maurice is venturing deeper into the forest, or the way pillars move about on stage to reshape castle corridors as needed. James Tuuao’s choreography nods to the big ensemble style that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is known for and manages to make “Be Our Guest” feel larger than the stage here would allow, keeping the long number lively with an array of well-received dance designs.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is just the latest in a string of fresh and thoughtfully produced shows at The Garden Theater, a far cry from less successful staging of Disney animated musicals here in the past. Even with this piece of fan-favorite IP, the Garden finds depth and again proves that its central theme for the season – identity – is no mere buzzword but rather an artistic vision informing deliberate and creative choices, combined with strong casting and what I can only assume to be bigger budgeting of late.
For the first time since I began reviewing shows here, I am already planning to buy a return ticket and “be a guest” all over again. You’ll want your tickets too. Get them from The Garden, where BEAUTY AND THE BEAST runs until May 22, 2022.
What did you think of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter: @aaronwallace
Photos by Steven Miller Photography, courtesy of Garden Theatre