BY SANDY STAGGS
Once upon a time in a venue not far away, the South Carolina Children’s Theatre staged its most popular musical ever about a young maiden who falls in love with a beast.
Flash forward some nine years later and the company has done it again in a lush, epic production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” that is certain to go down in the fairy-tale record books.
With enchanting music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, this musical was the first Disney animated property to transfer to the stage, and one of its finest.
And in the gifted hands of Artistic Director Betsy Bisson and Lauren Imhoff (who also choreographs), Greenville’s “Beauty and the Beast” with a cast of 46 is certainly a lavish spectacle to behold by youngsters and grown-ups alike.
Popular Upstate actor Chase Wolfe (last seen in on this stage in “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical”) is the handsome prince who is turned into a beast after insulting an enchantress disguised as a hag (the delightful Kate Reidy, recently from “The Miracle Worker”). The spell can only be broken when the Beast demonstrates a capacity to love.
Enter Upstate newcomer Hannah Thompson who reigns as our heroine Belle, a loner who lives in a small village with her kooky inventor father Maurice, played valiantly by Greenville actor Neil Shurley. To the townspeople, Belle is considered peculiar herself (“Belle”) because of her aloofness and love for literature — hence the gargantuan platform made of Godzilla-sized books that serves as the centerpiece of Kim Granner and Sean McClelland’s storybook set design.
Thompson is an astounding Belle and sings with refined assuredness and steadily like a sparrow and with graceful vibrato (“Is This Home”). And her chemistry with Wolfe is solid and organic.
Wolfe’s Beast costume may be semi-frightening at first, but he resolutely confines his Beast voice to the more human persona with only an occasional (pre-recorded) growl as not to scare the little ones in the audience. He is an accomplished actor and his skill gleams through any amount of fur and latex. Wolfe’s performance elicits ample empathy from the audience and we can’t help but root for him after his heartbreaking “If I Can’t Have Her.”
The villain is the hunky Gaston (Shawn Simmons in a boisterous and confident turn) who is the definition if narcissism as he leads his own self-titled song “Gaston.” He wants to marry Belle and the more she resists his advances, the harder he pursues.
Gaston often travels with his own entourage whether it’s his right-hand man Lefou (the infallible Drew Kenyon at his nuttiest) or his squad of admirers, the village Silly Girls, played with pep and glee by Beth Martin and Lindsay Polowczuk. These ladies are as giddy as high school girls and wholly enamored by Gaston, worshipping him like a pop star.
The spell not only affects the Beast but all of his servants as well; they are slowly morphing into inanimate household objects, a facet of the story that parlays into some of the musical’s most memorable and coveted roles.
Mitchell Smith in a French accent is simply luminous as the mischievous Lumiere the candelabra and Neel Patrick Edwards, as Cogsworth, gives a most dignified showing as the English clock and head of the castle.
Chelsea LaCourse bubbles over as the teapot Mrs. Potts and little Jack Gimble tugs at our heartstrings as and her son, the chipped teacup Chip.
As Babette the sexy French maid/feather duster, Christina Yasi never lets a comedic moment pass her by. And then there’s the Wardrobe embodied by Cheryl Greene, whose stand-out operatic voice reaches the heavens.
Brian C. Coker rounds out the main cast convincingly as the devious asylum director Monsieur D’Arque and Upstate theatre artist Will Ragland provides the pre-recorded narration voice-over in the prologue.
Another enchanting element is the directors’ added touch that places the elegant and poised Riedy as the omnipresent enchantress gazing upon the proceedings throughout the story in various parts of the stage, presumably reading Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve’s original 18th Century tale of “Beauty and the Beast.”
The costumes by Janet Gray and Kim Granner are whimsical, highly imaginative and exhilarating especially in the “Be Our Guest” parade by the dynamic dancing ensemble of both adults and youngsters that personify human china, cutlery, napkins, a magic carpet and even an adorable dinner bell.
Imhoff’s creative dance steps are exemplary in this beautiful scene, as well in the tavern segment with the males (Hommes and Garcons) and her gentle choreography with Wolfe, almost a ballet if you will, when the wolves attack. And so precious are the gymnastic tumbles by Camdyn Hayes, Anelise Johnson and Elliana Johnson.
Kudos to Ms. Bisson and Imhoff for a wildly-entertaining and sweet opus that flows effortlessly and is polished to the brilliant luster of a solid silver candelabra.
And Music Director Steven Griner’s efforts have paid off handsomely with exceptional vocal work from the stars to the harmonies and blending of a talented hearty ensemble.
Lighting designer Todd Wren’s magic takes center stage near the end of the story for a most satisfying pay-off and sparkling display.
Mia Phillips is Stage Manager for this production, with Cyndi Kerns and Pat Garrett assisting. And Lauren Veselak is Dance Captain and one of the featured dancers.
“Beauty and the Beast” continues through Sept. 25 at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre. Some matiness are already sold out, but seats are still available for several 7 p.m. curtains. Call (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.