MOLINE — There's a lot going on in Music Guild's spectacular, heartfelt new production of “Beauty and the Beast.” And that's not just because the big show boasts a cast of 35 and 20 in the orchestra pit.
The emotional, musical and visual weight of the show is just as impressive when there are only one or two people on the Prospect Park stage. Seventy years after Guild began, its 248th production has proven popular with audiences of all ages. By the end of its first weekend, this “Beauty” sold out six of its scheduled seven performances in the 535-seat theater; as of Monday, only seats remained for Saturday night and an added Saturday matinee.
The enchanted Disney musical which premiered on Broadway in 1994 and ran 13 years, is beloved not only for its sumptuous score, with music by Alan Menken (who's won eight Oscars out of 19 nominations) and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.
The sensation, that's played to over 35 million people in 13 countries was an animated feature film in 1991 and later a live-action film in 2017, is a vital part of our cultural lexicon for its inspirational messages that apply to children and adults alike. The timeless story tells of Belle, a young, independent, progressive woman in a provincial French town, and the tormented Beast, who is really a young prince trapped under the spell of a wicked enchantress.
If the mean, menacing, self-hating Beast can learn to love and be loved, the curse will end and he will be transformed into his former self, as will the colorful comrades in his castle — who were turned into objects like a clock, candelabra, teapot, cup, feather duster and wardrobe. But time is running out and the village's egotistical cad, Gaston, is a rival for Belle's affections and is out to end the Beast.
The shimmering, moving, funny fairy-tale musical deftly addresses themes of friendship, stereotypes, prejudice, self-esteem, tolerance, perseverance, courage, manners, civility, forgiveness, and of course, love, reading and dancing cutlery.
Q-C theater veteran Heather Herkelman was born to play the feisty, feminist Belle. She's the very embodiment of spunk and standing up for yourself; no one tells her what to do, whether it's a pompous paramour or a threatening prince.
With a picture-perfect set (designed by director Bob Williams), the veritable stage is set in the sprightly opening number, “Belle,” in which our heroine declares her love of books, romance, and adventure, while the retrograde townsfolk think she's downright peculiar. Rob Keech plays Gaston with a grandiose, bombastic air that feels swashbuckling, even though there's no sword in sight.
Gaston feels he's entitled to the most beautiful girl in the village, to match his smarmy good lucks. Belle smartly rebuffs him and bonds with her kindly father, Maurice (Joel Kolander), an inventor who's also the victim of reproach from villagers who think he's odd. In the tender “No Matter What,” the dad and daughter reassure each other, and Belle shows her selflessness when she finds Maurice trapped in the Beast's castle and persuades his captor to let her take her father's place as “prisoner.”
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In what could easily be (and what originally was in the '91 animated film) a cartoonish, cardboard character, the forbidding Beast here is given depth, poignancy and dramatic shades by David Baxter, a 27-year-old Pleasant Valley High choir teacher, who makes a tremendously affecting Music Guild debut. With his deep, smooth voice, his Beast is imposing physically, emotionally and vocally, and Baxter's rocky road to chivalry is first revealed in a graceful sliver when he hopes Belle likes it in the castle.
Both Herkelman and Baxter unleash strong, powerful singing voices, and their character clash at the outset is titanic, which makes the Beast's eventual transformation into a gentleman (before his physical change back to the dashing prince) and Belle's declaration of love for him so touching.
The supporting characters are each played expertly, with wit and style — Adam Lounsberry (2005's Gaston at Guild) as the playful Lumiere; Travis Meier as the incomparably British Cogsworth; Rachel Vickers as the doting, protective Mrs. Potts; Alex King as her cute kid in a cup, Chip; Lauren VanSpeybroeck as the flirtatious Babette; and Hannah Johnson as the sympathetic, operatic Mme. de la Grande Bouche (fittingly translated as “big mouth”)
Among many big production numbers, the first-act “Gaston” is rousing and joyous, including the consistently enthusiastic, whiny Silly Girls (Victoria Beale, Rachel Grewe, and Zoe Purcell), who fawn over Gaston and can't believe Belle doesn't similarly swoon.
The show's stops are most gleefully pulled out for the classic “Be Our Guest,” the eye-popping, colorful, Busby Berkeley-inspired ensemble piece, featuring the shimmying dishes and gold silverware. Costume designer Linda Copeland Kozelichki truly shines here, as throughout this visual cornucopia.
Another highlight is in the second-act title song, wistfully performed by Vickers, as Belle and the Beast share a formal dinner, wearing their finest finery. Herkelman's sparkling yellow gown is simply gorgeous and when the pair dance, it's magic.
Baxter's darkness and frustration reach their apotheosis in the climactic first-act closer, “If I Can't Have Her.” After the insistent, driving “Mob Song” and second-act battle with Keech, Baxter's transformation — complete with strobe lights, acrobatics, and virtual flying — is stunning.
Including solid music direction by Bob Manasco and choreography by Steph DeLacy, this “Beast” is a true beauty.