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‘Beauty and the Beast’ may be best ever

PHOTOS BY BILL CROWELL OF BUDGET ARTIST Carly Grayson as Belle, Sam Snyder as Gaston, Kathleen Cameron as Lefou.

Prepare to be moved, delighted and, yes, enchanted as Millbrook Playhouse launches the 2018 summer season with its first main stage production, “Beauty and the Beast.”

The Playhouse sets the scene from the start with rose centerpieces on the courtyard tables and twining roses on the staircase railings, introducing before we even take our seats the fairytale motif that propels the story’s action: that love must be declared before the last petal falls and life comes to an end.

The set succeeds in further casting the spell, moving us immediately into a richly imagined world where stone steps, trellised walls, and raised balcony function as both the boundary of the town square and the entrance to an enchanted castle where Clock (Cogsworth), Candelabra (Lumiere), and Teapot (Mrs. Potts) wait on their Master, a prince who has been trapped by an ancient curse in the body of a hideous beast. The juxtaposition of town square and fairytale castle provide the tensions of the story as Gaston, the town’s cock of the walk, who is insufferable, self-absorbed, and entirely provincial, determines to force the beautiful Belle to become “Madame Gaston” and attacks the castle where Belle is being held captive. The transitions between scenes are handled by the ensemble with ease, and the pace of the production as it moves from heartfelt duets to choreographed song-and-dance numbers is lively and professional.

Much of the magic at work here is created by the music, which establishes atmosphere and gives voice to the highs and lows of the play’s emotional journey. The music also drives home, on a subliminal level, the paradoxes at the heart of the drama: while Gaston flexes his muscles and sings proudly about the hair all over his body, the Beast yearns to escape the trap of animality to which he’s been cursed. And while the townspeople (humans all) descend into mob mentality and vow to storm the ramparts and “kill the Beast,” the castle’s household, who are waiting to become human again, shower Belle with kindness and tutor the Beast in proper etiquette.

The magic that enables the viewer to suspend disbelief and thoroughly enter the world of make-believe has completely taken hold by the end of the first act when the Master’s household, under the direction of Lumiere, takes pity on Belle and decides to offer her supper, asking her to “Be Our Guest.” This is commonly cited as one of Disney’s greatest songs, and the company – performing the number with show-stopping zest – does it complete justice.

The music also provides moments of just plain fun. A scene of drunken revelry in which the peasants raise their cups in praise of Gaston gives way to what could be called a tin-cup-clatter dance, a wonderful toe-tapping number whose beats are accentuated by the coordinated striking of the dancers’ cups. Beautifully choreographed, and perfectly executed.

Let me step back a moment here. I have to offer a confession in the middle of this review. Here it is: I’ve been a bit of a snob when it comes to “Beauty and the Beast.” For years, having avoided watching the DVD, I saw Belle only as one of the ubiquitous Disney princesses whose romanticized images were evoked to sell everything from pillowcases to lunch boxes. For me, Belle was simply the one in the yellow dress. So imagine my surprise when she appears in one of the first scenes with her nose in a book. And when she laments being shunned by the townspeople for her love of reading. And, even better, when she tames the Beast by teaching him to read! Now, having been completely won over, I can’t help imagining that one of the lessons at the heart of this play is that enlarging one’s imaginative capacities allows us to bridge our differences and become, yes, more human. But whether that’s over-stepping on my part is something you can decide.

This year’s cast is highly talented. Sam Snyder as Gaston struts his stuff with just the right amount of macho narcissism. Carly Grayson, bringing to the role of Belle both a purity of heart and a delightful impertinence, is especially moving in the second act as she experiences the sweet confusion of her own transformation, leaving behind her childhood dreams as a “truer life begins.” And Adler Roberts, in the difficult role of the Beast, is convincing both in his animal agility and in his anguish over his stunted condition, able to convey effectively the potential of the trapped prince even from inside his mask. Kudos to the rest of the cast for their comic timing, their strong singing voices, and their esprit de corps. And kudos as well to Shannon Agnew, one of Millbrook’s long-time favorite performers and directors, who is directing her first main stage show with “Beauty and the Beast.”

As I was leaving last night, I overheard someone behind me say, “one of the best shows ever.” Yes. A great beginning to the 2018 summer season.

The show will run for three weekends. You can purchase tickets by calling 570-748-8083, going online at www.millbrookplayhouse.net, or stopping by the box office any day of the week.

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Karen Elias lives in Swissdale. She taught English for more than 30 years, most recently at Lock Haven University and Penn College.

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