Tuesday, August 8, 2017

"Disney's Beauty and the Beast" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
Up front: I actually quite like the animated Disney movie of Beauty and the Beast. It is probably my favorite of the "Disney princess" movies, largely because (spoiler alert...I just assume everybody knows this story) Belle falls in love with the beast's library before she falls in love with him. She's my kind of princess.

But I have to say I had some real reservations about seeing the stage musical version at Ashland, mostly because I don't think the material is really up to the standards they would normally uphold. There is nothing wrong with it per se, but there are certainly meatier musicals to choose from.

The Play

I've already mentioned that you know this story. Bookish Belle (Jennie Greenberry; a perennial favorite for her lovely singing voice) is a bit of a misfit in her town, the daughter of an eccentric inventor (Michael J. Hume). But she has caught the eye of the town narcissist, Gaston (James Ryen), though she wants nothing to do with him. Father gets lost in the woods, stumbles into the enchanted castle where a prince (Jordan Barbour) has been turned into a hideous beast as punishment for being a beastly person. Belle goes to find him, exchanges herself for her father's freedom, meaning she's a prisoner in the beast's castle forever.

Oh, yeah, there's an out. The beast's curse ends if he falls in love and someone falls in love with him, too. Not that I'm foreshadowing anything. There's a time limit, because of an enchanted rose that will eventually lose all its petals, and if the love thing hasn't been achieved, then the prince is a beast forever.

You know where all this is going, if only because I spoiled it for you earlier. It's a Disney princess story. Go with it.

The Production

Since I haven't seen this play on stage before, I don't know how much of it is specific to the OSF production and the direction of Eric Tucker. I guess it's safe to say that most productions of this play don't take place on an outdoor, Elizabethan stage, so there are distinct limits to what they can do with sets and decorations. There are definitely props and set pieces and lots of costumes, and they do a pretty good job with that.

There is also a sort of narrative frame that recurs several times, as Babette (Robin Goodrin Nordli) tells the back story, once quite thoroughly, and subsequently in quite abbreviated forms. That gives a bit more depth to the story and characters.

I also like that they didn't make the Beast a big, fuzzy, bear-like thing as in the movie (though they play with that image in the back story). This beast, as you can see in the photo, is pretty hideous, not at all cuddly, even when dressed up. He has a hump and nasty claws and horns and all that. Quite beastly. I like that better. Make your beasts beastly.

All the other Enchanted Objects in the castle are pretty much what you expect from the Disney story: a teapot and chipped cup, a candelabra, a clock, a mirror, and so on. Pretty much all the lines and songs you expect. Really, there are no surprises, because hey, this is Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I'm actually a little surprised they were able to deviate as much as they did at times.

Bottom Line

I probably would have skipped this show, but it fit with our overall schedule to see all the plays at the festival this year, and as I noted, I do like the movie. All told, I think I like it better as an animated film, but this rendition was fine.

But of course, I am not the target audience. I have to say the audience for the Saturday evening show we saw was full, and quite noticeably younger than the average OSF audience, even if you don't count the many small children. Clearly, OSF scheduled this show to appeal to families with young children, and it worked. The players got a huge ovation at the end. Although some of the children I saw did get a bit fidgety (it's a 2.5-hour show, with an intermission), none seemed clearly bored, and none seemed bothered by the fact that it's not Exactly Like the Movie they've seen countless times.

I'm generally not particularly in favor of pandering to a particular audience, but I'm also aware that attracting younger audiences (both the children and their parents) is an important goal of all theaters. If OSF can attract young families by including a Disney musical now and then, I guess that's OK. This was certainly more family-friendly than last year's Great Expectations, for example.

So, on that level, it worked, it was well-done and well-received, so it's hard to be critical. Bring on the youth!

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