By now, I think most people know the story of “Beauty and the Beast.” Small town girl, enchanted castle, talking furniture, true love’s kiss. You know the drill. But director Marcia Milgrom Dodge makes sure her production of this beloved fairy tale at the Olney Theatre Center gets a modern day makeover.
From the moment we meet our heroine (the lovely Jade Jones), she manages to distinguish herself from her animated counterpart. Without sacrificing any of Belle’s original moxie, Jones adds impeccable comedic timing and impressive riffs to Alan Menken’s original score, giving it a surprising, but pleasant, update. And she does it all while wearing pants. While this switch proves to be a success for costume designer Ivania Stack, the move to make Gaston’s typically bright red jacket a shade of mustard yellow was not.
Thankfully, Michael Burrell was so dynamic in the role, he could be wearing the same shade of castle-wall-beige and he’d still stand out in a crowd. He may play the villain, but Burrell belts out everything he sings with a swoon-worthy voice and overconfident swagger, particularly in his namesake number “Gaston.” When matched with the dweeby little oddball (and I do mean that as the highest compliment) that is LeFou (John Sygar), their energy, physicality, and facial expressions are unmatched.
As Belle sacrifices herself to save her father Maurice (Sasha Olinick), audiences finally begin to see the enchanted castle and all who live there. Cogsworth (Dylan Arredondo), Lumiere (Bobby Smith), Mrs. Potts (Iyona Blake), Chip (Miranda Pepin), and Babette (Hailey Rebecca Ibberson) are full of posh charm and lovable energy. Shrouded from head to toe in gorgeous costumes made from rich fabrics and bright colors, we as an audience are willing to believe they really are turning into household knick-knacks.
Of course, one cannot mention the enchanted castle without mentioning the Beast himself. Evan Ruggiero not only perfectly captures the Beast’s gruff, raspy intensity, but his underlying sweetness and desire for love as well. As he effortlessly sweeps around with some well-timed flicks of cape-ography (cape choreography), his complex demeanor pairs well with Jones and Belle’s newfound chutzpah. This chemistry is exemplified during Blake’s heartwarming rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” as Jones swirls around in a purple dress. Yes. Purple. Call me a traditionalist, but Belle should be in yellow. Admittedly, the purple is overlaid with intricate gold lace and Jones looks beautiful in it, but it’s still purple.
Auditorily, the cast gave Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice’s original score the credit it deserves. “Home,” “If I Can’t Love Her,” and “Something There” give their respective performers a moment to shine and are just as goosebump-inducing as their Broadway counterparts. Visually, however, there’s something missing. In what is supposed to be the flashiest, loudest, most colorful part of the show, this version of “Be Our Guest” left something to be desired.
Each individual plate, cup, napkin, or piece of cutlery brought something to the scene, but there were very few moments when the entire kitchen was on the stage together, leaving an empty feel that does not match the wonderful sound of the ensemble’s full, rich harmonies. However, what the production lacks in “Be Our Guest,” it makes up for in “Human Again,” and this highly underrated song is made even better by Madame de la Grande Bouche’s (Jessica Lauren Bell) operatic high notes in the background.
While “Beauty and the Beast” has always been about seeing beyond appearances, Dodge’s production takes it one step further with the casting of Jones, who identifies as a queer, plus-sized Black woman, and Ruggiero, who uses a prosthetic after losing part of his leg to cancer. As we watch these two fall in love, the production effortlessly confronts the idea of having empathy for others and accepting those that may be different from us.
Combine these important life lessons with a stellar cast and a classic fairytale, and you are left with a feel-good, family friendly musical that’s perfect for the holiday season.
The production runs two and a half hours with a fifteen minute intermission. Tickets can be purchased here. “Beauty and the Beast” will play at the Olney Theatre Center through January 2, 2022.
All photo credit to Teresa Castracane Photography. Additional photos can be found in the gallery below.
This production contains the use of strobe lighting, stage fog, and loud sound cues.