High School musicals are expected to be efficient, cute and fun. But the production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast that takes over the James Barr auditorium is as lavish as anything you’ll see in Milwaukee.
The production fills the James Barr Auditorium from top to bottom and end to end, thanks to beautifully painted backdrops and a beauty Rococo Castle designed by Amelia Figg-Franzoi. They create the depths of a vine-tangled enchanted forest for a proscenium that merges with the Rococo curves of a painted wall and French art nouveau curves as scenes shift from forest to village to castle.
The scenes even break the fourth wall to include the audience a couple of times as wolves chase characters through the seats. With moody, shadowy, blue-green lighting hung by Wayne Peters and stage crew dotted with orange candle light the colorful spectacle is often breathtaking.
And then there are the gorgeous, elaborate 18th century costumes by Jennifer Fletcher, from sumptuous ballgowns and royal frock coats to fanciful designs that turn people into enchanted objects like talking candlesticks, clocks and tea pots.
But, of course, the performances are what make or break the show, and this eager young cast is at the top of their game.
Dominick Cole, a senior in his first musical, plays the shaggy Beast with as much homage to Bert Lahr’s comically prissy Cowardly Lion as to Robby Benson’s defensive, emotionally bruised protagonist in Disney’s original 1991 animated movie. Cole has an empathetic knack for making us feel the inner workings of the not-quite-human character.
And Cole’s baritone, which can boom when needed, is most effective in his hauntingly poignant “If I Can’t Love Her” lament about the fear of losing Belle forever. He gives subtle, moving, dramatic shadings to the ballad; he acts and dances the song rather than merely sings it.
Senior, Mari Duckler who has the perfect Disney Princess voice – lovely lilt with big measures of spunky and flirty – is a beautiful charmer as Belle, the book-loving daughter of the town’s eccentric inventor who spends a lot of her time fending off hilariously egregious advances from the local pretty boy/bully, Gaston. Duckler keeps Belle intelligent, admirable and, when needed, defiant; she is never a victim, even when held hostage.
Belle has the largest number of songs, and Duckler’s clear soprano captures the right moods, from the charming “Belle” to the wistful “Home” to the romantic “Something There” (with the Beast) and “A Change in Me.”
Derrick Karas is hilarious as the obtuse, self-centered Gaston with a wow of a baritone voice. He’s a strutting hunk who can prance and mince and still make it macho. Andrew Lococo is seductively charming and amusing as the shamelessly flirty French candelabra, Lumiere (think: Maurice Chevalier), who is our guide through the show and the able leader of “Be Our Guest.” And Emily Boehlke is a particular joy as the operatic, flighty and giggly Madame de la Grande Bouche (Mrs. Big Mouth).
In a show with a wealth of big numbers – notably the singing, dancing napkins and dinnerware of “Be Our Guest” – one surprise is the precision choreography in Gaston’s tavern romp that seems like an Old World way of tap-dancing. Clever and mesmerizing.