Of course, Beauty and the Beast is not just appealing to little girls. Its universal themes of acceptance and love resonate with pretty much everyone, and although Jean Cocteau might wonder where the deep currents of sorrow and existential torture have gone, Disney’s version has a powerful, delicious appeal. Belle longs for more than her provincial life, something to feed her hungry soul. When her father is taken hostage by the spellbound Beast in the dark woods, Belle relinquishes her freedom in exchange for his. The magical castle springs to life around her and gradually the loathsome beast and the woman find true love in each other. Meanwhile, Belle is pursued from the opening by the demented frat boy Gaston, who is quite particular about his arm candy. Vain and treacherous, he dogs her relentlessly, taking her father hostage and blackmailing her by destroying everything she loves.
Gaston is an actor’s dream. All his vanity is on the surface, for comedy, while his passion simmers beneath to surprise his audience. Lucas Graf as Gaston seems to be having a wonderful time, and this audience is lucky to witness one of the best comic performances in memory. Graf, aided by the incomparable Tim Luoma as his sidekick Lefou, struts and postures, enjoying himself very much. With such songs as “Me” and “Gaston” he could hardly go wrong, and he wrings every opportunity for exaggerated goofiness out of them. Graf’s grin on opening night—either from stage fright, exhaustion or method, I don’t know—conveyed the daze of monomania. Gaston’s myopic vanity is accentuated by Martinez’s direction, which has Lefou buzzing around Gaston’s edges. The vanity is further enhanced by one of Linda Muth’s winning costumes, built to add pectoral bulk with tiny sleeves to make his arms look hulking. Graf’s sweet, low, resonant voice add to the power we wish we could resist.
To counter this smirking, we have Belle, played at the performance I attended by Angi Purinton (she and Sarah Giggar share the role). Dressed in her puritanical blue and white, Purinton will startle movie devotees with her incredible mimicry of Belle’s movie voice. Her singing voice is her own, and very strong and lovely, but her talking voice, down to each inflection, lifts the character off the screen and into the room. In a way, this adds further to the magic of the production, as if a spell had been cast over the actors. While Belle is an admirable female character, a blessing for the mothers of little girls, she lacks the complexity of her nemesis. She is, then, a relief, and Purinton shoulders this responsibility with confidence. She strikes a balance between ingénue hot-headedness and maternal solace, a combination that would attract any child or man. As the fussy Cogsworth and the laid-back lothario Lumiere, Greg Steen and Laramie Dean render their comic characters with dignity and the perfect patter of a long-term comedy team. Scott Reilly as the Beast contends admirably with his overbearing costume and obscured face, understanding that we’ll mainly get to know him through his profile and posture.
Linda Muth might as well be on stage for the bows, for her costume concepts are delightfully elaborate and well realized. Clearly, the production’s money went here. Cogswell’s interior pendulum really swings behind a glass door that opens. Lumiere’s melted candles for hands really light, and a set of dinner plates appears in Vegas perfection, all giant plate and extended legs. A note in the program tells us the costumes include, among other things, paint can lids, swimming noodles, kite poles, flower pots and a lamp shade. Some of the costumes are true works of wit and will surely inspire envy in the Halloween audiences—a human-sized egg beater, a whisk, and Andy Wells’ magical tea cart upon which sits Chip, a talking teacup with a child’s face.
Music has a place of great prominence in this production, and the orchestra, under the command of David Cody and Ben Kirby, shows off precision professionalism, its big, beautiful sound rising up from the floor with all the majesty of another character, exactly what it should be.
Beauty and the Beast is an ambitious undertaking, but the MCT spirit will out, and the cast and crew should rest easy that they have pleased a great many people. Gaston is one of the most interesting characters Disney’s ever come up with; goofy, yes, and wildly popular because of his good looks, but also a rapist-in-the making, a bully who ignores the humanity of others. When anything gets in his way the slick wears off and a sour side is revealed, dark and menacing, bratty and totally spoiled. If he were running for president, he’d win.
Remaining Beauty and the Beast performances are Oct. 28–31 and Nov. 3–7 at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. Wednesday through Saturday, performances are at 8 PM; Sunday evening performances are at 6:30 PM; Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2 PM. Tickets cost $14 to $18. Call 728-PLAY for more information.