Theatre Cedar Rapids tells a familiar ‘tale as old as time’

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Theatre Cedar Rapids — through Sunday, Dec. 18

The castle denizens of TCR's 'Disney's Beauty and the Beast' -- photo by Struttmann Photo
The castle denizens of TCR’s ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

On opening night of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, I saw children of all ages scattered among parents and die hard Belle fans (she is the best princess, you know). Glow roses lit up illegally during the first half of the show, little fingers too eager to lay off the buttons. Sweet small voices rose up sporadically, parents’ futile shushing following close behind.

My five-year-old was my partner in crime to this show and she was in absolute awe. The costumes, the music, the glow rose we purchased (which remained grasped in her hand during the entirety of the first act), the overall excitement of, “I’m going to a show!!” — for her, it all filled the evening with the sort of enchantment the story on stage talks of. (Indeed the rose itself took on an animated personality for a few moments before I heard the snores from the back seat on the drive home.)

A child’s love for the material will get you far, but not all the way. The beginning was full of excitement for the crowd, but it dissipated over the course of the first act. I’m sure the children in the audience were growing tired and fidgety the later it got, but the first half was also considerably slower than the second. Exposition can be tiresome, and the songs the masses don’t recognize don’t elicit the same kind of excitement. There were a lot of pacing issues in the first half, which seemed to get better once we got to the castle and the Beast became more entwined with the story.

Much of the staging was two dimensional, partly due to the scenic design. The set is very large and takes up most of the stage, but seems fairly difficult to navigate on a whim. The castle itself is ornate and pretty, but largely inflexible for staging purposes. The size of the set makes it difficult for the actors to create dynamic pictures on the stage, mostly relegating them to the ground floor for entrances and exits on either stage right or left (though there were some extremely underutilized doorways built into the set that could have brought more dimension to the action). And while there is the entire width of the stage available, there is little depth in which to play. Actors moved closely together during choral numbers. You can imagine, with the large scale of some of the costumes, it almost became a bumper car game at times. The choreography feels stilted, due to immense costuming and lack of space.

Erin Helm as Belle; Dustin Davis as Gaston -- photo by Struttmann Photo
Erin Helm as Belle; Dustin Davis as Gaston — photo by Struttmann Photo
While the bulk of action is at stage level, there are moments in the castle as well, some of which worked better than others. The climax of the story, the fight between bully and beast, was staged in the castle at the farthest point from the audience, making it difficult to feel the urgency and fear of the moment. If that had been brought downstage, the excitement and terror would have registered more with the audience. Instead, it was clumsy and slow as they navigated a small platform and short flight of narrow stairs at the top of the tower. Belle’s confession of love for the beast was also so far away that it was hard to be a part of that intimate moment. However, both choices had their benefits, too: Being at that height was necessary to the finale of the fight, to an extent, and the distance assisted in the theatrical magic of the Beast’s transformation, making it clean and impressive.

The lighting generally was fine and had some lovely moments, but could have been used to help define the space more, especially during some smaller scenes. When Belle and her father sing together, they have the entire downstage width of the stage available, but barely use it. Any straying from their little corner seems extremely tentative. Lighting could have helped define and condense the space for them.

Benjamin Schmidt’s music direction was spot on. There were some issues hearing the leads over the choral moments at times (hopefully the sound designer can fix that!), but, in general, the singing was very professional and pleasant to the ear.

Dustin Davis’ Gaston was a perfect combination of bluster, arrogance and stunning baritone vocals. His voice commands the arena like few I’ve witnessed. His henchman, Lefou, played by Brett Borden, was a slimy, devoted foil to the bully he worshiped, complete with appropriately irritating vocals.

The castle knick-knacks, led by the melodic Greg Smith (Lumiere) and John Zbanek Hill (Cogsworth), were fun and endearing. Smith committed entirely to his interpretation of the character. When certain aspects of the show seemed to drag, his energy alone brought the audience back into the moment. Zbanek Hill’s Cogsworth is nuanced and witty, lending a wonderfully honest take to the character. Their interactions could have used an uptick in pace, but are generally entertaining to view. Mrs. Potts (Nadine Borngraeber), through her lovely voice and tender presence, kept the necessary optimism alive for the others. Her daughter, Chip (Emma Cruse), was also a positive force on the stage (though I wish she could have had more freedom of movement in that costume!). The vixen feather duster, Babette (Andie Paasch), was a personal favorite of mine. Her French accent was full of giggles and inflection, and she exudes an energy that is fun to watch.

John Zbanek Hill (left) as Cogsworth; Greg Smith (right) as Lumiere -- photo by Struttmann Photo
John Zbanek Hill (left) as Cogsworth; Greg Smith (right) as Lumiere — photo by Struttmann Photo

Erin Helm’s Belle was kind and accepting of others; Helm has top notch vocals and a killer smile. The role is a hard one to mine a complex character from, and she could have used more guidance from a director in this area, but I never doubted her intention behind the lines. She is also a natural dancer, keeping up with the chorus in the vigorous “Be Our Guest” number.

Daniel Kelchen’s Beast was, simply put, wonderful. His journey is written in his physicality. In the beginning he was crouching, defensive and reactive at the same time. As his relationship with Belle grew, he became taller, softer. His solo numbers touched the heart and, even though he was the only soul onstage, the space was filled with his longing to be a human being capable of loving and being loved in return.

There were consistent pacing issues for the majority of the show. Many performers didn’t seem to be able to fill the space, even when the entirety of the chorus was on stage. There was a lack of energy that permeated from the beginning of the show, too, which could be attributed to a lack of intention of the individuals within the group: Actors seemed to roam from here to there, exhibiting an absence of motivation in movement. When Belle was grabbed by the gargoyles or by Gaston or the people of the town, or when Gaston is marching the townsfolk towards the castle to “kill the beast!” the excitement and ferociousness was present only in their voices, not in their physicality. During the battle between human and object, performers ran from down left to up right or up right to down left, passing their opponents, but seldom making eye contact, not seemingly running from a pursuer or pursuing anyone or thing. None were committed to the fright of the moments presented and there were a lot of opportunities missed. There was a severe lack of stakes across the board.

All the pieces were there — the willing, excited, talented cast, the beautiful music, the fun choreography, the tale as old as time — they simply were not used well. David Schneider, the director, moved from a smaller, dramatic Grandon show to an epic musical on the mainstage, and, though I believe he has potential, I think this project may have been biting off a bit more than he could reasonably chew.

One last thing: There was a missed opportunity for girl power to be infused into the show. Many small girls were in the audience — girls who will take to heart the messages of the things they see and experience. But women in the show are man-handled multiple times, with no attention paid to the men assaulting them. There are very few gestures of fighting back from the women. I wanted to see Gaston’s groupies wise up at a certain point (the roles titled “Silly Girl” in the program). I wanted to see Belle throw a book or a punch. I wanted to see her try to escape from Gaston, from the Beast, from the poor provincial town that threatened to stifle all the wondrous things inside her. In this show, Belle is empowered to a point — but we needed more bravery.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through Sunday, Dec. 18; tickets are $26–40.

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