Catherine Charlebois has the perfect Disney princess voice as she makes her Music Theatre Wichita debut as Belle in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” the long-awaited and sold-out encore after 12 years.
The Broadway veteran (“Wicked,” “Fiddler on the Roof”) from Massachusetts has a soprano that’s bright, perky and full of charm and color – and comfortably consistent with the soundtrack of Disney’s 1991 Oscar-nominated animated movie. Her wistful “Home” about wanting more than her cut-and-dried provincial life is charming, and her “A Change in Me” as she confronts feelings she hasn’t had before is absolutely lovely.
And Charlebois has the power to belt numbers to the back wall of Century II with ease, something that seems to be encouraged by director Wayne Bryan, longtime producing artistic director. Bryan’s new production of Disney’s classic wears its emotional heart on its sleeve and sweeps us up into the yearning, wonder, poignancy and ultimate joy.
After all, it is a beloved fairy tale that’s perfect family fare. Thanks to a script by Linda Woolverton, it’s smart and witty enough to keep adults engrossed (even the deliberate groaner puns) while being completely accessible to eager youngsters.
And the glorious music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice has become a familiar soundtrack in our everyday lives, from the jaunty “Be Our Guest” to the ubiquitous “tale as old as time” title tune.
Playing opposite Charlebois’ aptly named brunette beauty is Florida native Thaddeus Pearson as the Beast, a spoiled and selfish prince cast under a hideous spell until he learns compassion and how to love somebody selflessly. Pearson, who was in the London version of “West Side Story” as well as playing regional romantic leads like Prince Eric of “The Little Mermaid,” gives a compelling sensitivity to his character despite occasional use of enhanced audio for his scary roars.
Pearson is particularly powerful and heartbreaking in the ballad “If I Can’t Love Her.” Like Charlebois, he has that old-fashioned Broadway power to reach and rivet even those in the back row.
Charlebois and Pearson have a nice chemistry that works both when they are verbally sparring and when they find common cause. Her Belle isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes, and his Beast – sometimes with comical body English – learns to like having an equal partner to challenge him.
A lot of the fun and mischief come from a quartet of enchanted objects: Steve Hitchcock as Lumiere, the debonair candelabra; James Beaman as Cogsworth, the worrywart clock; Katie Banks-Todd as Mrs. Potts, the kindly teapot; and Karen L. Robu as Madame de la Grande Bouche (Madam Big Mouth), the operatic chest of drawers.
Hitchcock (Cornelius in “Hello, Dolly!” last summer) is wickedly funny as an unrepentant but irresistible ladies man. Beaman (hilarious bootlegger Cookie in the recent “Nice Work If You Can Get It”) is appropriately bustling and amusingly officious. Robu, who just brought the house down by swinging on a chandelier in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” is liltingly amusing as an aging artiste and fashionista.
And Banks-Todd, an El Dorado native who made it to Broadway but has returned to raise her family, is wonderfully jovial and welcoming – and, to my mind, has a better singing voice for “Beauty and the Beast” than veteran Angela Lansbury, who created the original.
But the real guffaws come from Johnny Stellard as the preening and posturing huntsman, Gaston, and Tanner Pflueger as his fawning sidekick, Lefou. Broadway veteran Stellard (“Evita” revival), an MTWichita alumnus from four summers from 2007 to 2010, is a handsome hunk with a strong comic streak for this over-the-top role. He also has a rich, full, spectacular baritone for his signature song, “Gaston,” praising himself.
And Pflueger, a third-year member of this year’s resident company from Oklahoma City University, is a strong dancer with gymnastic skills who is fearless with pratfalls. His Lefou is always getting thrown around, knocked down or pounded, like poor Wile E. Coyote. Pflueger keeps bouncing right back up for more.
Stelland and Pflueger are as animated and delightfully cartoonish as, well, the original Disney film, but they have a smooth, physical finesse that lets them fit right in with the reality of the other characters. They also have the benefit of choreographer Adam Cates, who engineers their fight movements as just another aspect of dance.
Cates also does interesting things with four large production numbers involving more than 30 dancers each. Notable is “Be Our Guest,” as the dining room crew presents Belle with her first meal. It’s a little Busby Berkeley, a little Ziegfeld Follies, a little “The Nutcracker Suite” as the “table” sets itself, first with golden flatware, then with spinning dishes and finally with accessories like napkins, salt and pepper, etc. Costumer Tiia E. Torchia re-creates her imaginative fairy tale visions – including Belle’s sumptuous golden gown for the ballroom – from the 2004 version.
Set designer J Branson also re-creates his 2004 sets, which have a soft, pastel, storybook look. David Neville’s lighting designs create beautiful moods with saturated colors, from warm tones for home and hearth to murky blues and greens overlaid with projected fog for the dark, mysterious woods where the Beast lives. The most memorable look is the castle turret in blue moonlight with twinkling stars, providing a beautifully evocative setting for the Beast’s soul-searching.
Music director Thomas W. Douglas and his 19-piece orchestra kept the music lively and the pace swift. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable show that will have you humming and smiling all the way home from the theater.
‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’
What: Music Theatre Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. July 3
Tickets: The show is sold out. Any returned tickets will show up on the website for purchase. Tickets are $64-$28 evenings, $58-$26 matinees. (Children must be at least 5 to attend.)