Curtains: Beauty and the Beast at Gilbert's Hale Theatre; Childsplay's Rides Pimped on TV!

Categories: Curtains
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Be their guest: The cast of Beauty and the Beast -- including Thomas Brower (in white wig) and Linsey Maxon (in blue dress) -- cavorting through a typical French meal.
First, a quick happy note: Childsplay has received donations of vehicle repair, maintenance, and a promotional color van wrap from Purcell Tire, FastSigns, and the reality show NASCAR Angels. This fabulous collection of valuable services will greatly benefit the award-winning professional children's theater (which tours like a mofo so that kids all over can enjoy the shows) and give them additional safety and peace of mind on the road, as well. And you can watch the episode this weekend! It airs Sunday, August 9, at 10:30 a.m. on KTVK channel 3. (And I doubt you'll ever see NASCAR mentioned in this column again.)

Okay, on to this week's review. It seems that no matter where you look, some poor young thing is having boyfriend trouble. He's a time traveler, or he's a vampire, or he's a big, hairy, menacing, enchanted beast. (Folktale classifications 425-449, Supernatural or Enchanted Husband or Relative.)

Versions of Beauty and the Beast have been delighting us since the 18th century. I am certifiably crazy for the Disney animated musical version, which I've also seen live on stage and on ice. Hale Centre Theatre's current production is that same ultra-popular script.

Director Tregoney Shepherd takes advantage of the long aisle stairways that run through the audience down to the main arena playing area at Hale, staging a great many entrances, exits, and small scenes on the steps. This creates more levels and complexity for settings like the castle and the forest, and it brings the actors thrillingly close at times.

Evaluated against the cartoon, the live show has advantages and disadvantages, especially when presented in this intimate space. The Beast's household servants are now only gradually becoming objects (like clocks, teapots, and candlesticks), so that they are costumed to look less and less human as the spell progresses. This is a much easier and more believable way to handle the transformation of human actors, and it also makes us feel a bit more empathy for the characters.

Philippe, the horse that belongs to Belle and her father, Maurice, in the cartoon version, is not here (he ruled the ice show, however), and in his absence, we also lose the scene that redeems Maurice as an inventor, so there's now no particular reason for him to be an inventor at all. Meanwhile, the stage version has approximately five full-length songs the animated script lacks, and about half of them are draggy solos that seems to be there merely to cover big costume changes (or epic scene-shifting, which Hale is able to dispense with).

Only one of these added songs has lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, who worked on both The Little Mermaid and B&B when Disney first produced the cartoons; the new numbers have Tim Rice lyrics that are simply not as snappy and clever. One was inserted for Toni Braxton four years into the Broadway run, and it's still there, but Toni Braxton most Belles ain't.

But I'm an über-fan, more than a little obsessive about my own favorite telling of this timeless story of a sad monster and a sweet girl -- who just wants to be left alone to read her books! -- so I must concede that not all these things that drive me right round the bend are legitimate points of criticism. Hale's Beauty and the Beast is smoothly acted, sung, and paced. Corrin Dietlein and her costume crew, along with wig designer Laszlo Layton, have dressed the cast up so that they look just like the famous characters while still seeming comfortable and emotionally accessible. Though everyone's hard work is evident, the company makes it all look fun and exhilarating.

Thomas Brower, as Lumière, the smooth-talking maître d' who's part candelabrum, is a sparkling standout in this wholly competent cast. Look at his grin in the photo above! He oozes internal monologue and backstory; his Lumière is one of the only dramatic characters I've wished existed in real life to have a drink with after the show.

Linsey Maxon and Tyler Maxon, in the title roles, are married in real life, and that enables some really touching stuff, especially when the kissing parts happen. Ms. Maxon is a sweet Belle, but I did long for the genuine fire, spunkiness, and individuality that her dialogue demands. (And yes, it's possible even when Belle's played by a real person.)

Beauty and the Beast continues through Saturday, August 29, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 West Page Avenue in downtown Gilbert. Tickets are $23 to $25; order here or call 480-497-1181.

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