UNCW’s Department of Theatre opened a lovely retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Christopher Marino. First, let’s be clear: This is not Disney’s musical, and outside of the name, it shares very little with that incarnation. It is, however, intended as a family-friendly show, and to that end, the curtain time is 7 p.m. for evening shows and 2 p.m. matinees Friday through Sunday through Nov. 20.
The evening’s events are narrated by The Man in Pink (Tony Choufani), a self-described “real fairy” and his assistant, Cecile (Mickey Johnson), with the additional help of a rabbit (Allison Grady), who Pink assures he will not try to pull out of a hat. Pink has an assortment of gadgets he has invented, including a thought reader and lantern that Rabbit and Cecile operate to project a puppet play onto a big screen for the exposition of the show. This is where audiences learn how handsome Prince George (Sean Owens) became the Beast (Matt Carter) and how Beauty’s father (Josh Browner) wound up taking advantage of the Beast’s hospitality. The puppet-theatre projects are a delightful blend of film and theatre designed by Shannon Bourne and produced by Bobby Hartman and guest artist Aaron Varnam. Aaron’s brother, Adrian, also composed and conducted the score played by the Insect Orchestra (Darien Bradley, Khiry Huggins, Sarah Kilgore, John McCall, Wesleigh Neville, and Sean Owens). Eventually, Beauty (Katherine Carr) and her sister, Lettice (Jessica Gift), who eagerly await their father’s return, are introduced. Little do they know, dad has made a deal involving Beauty’s future.
At first glance this seems like an unusual choice for Christopher Marino, whose past local credits include such lighthearted fare as “Macbeth,” “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” and his awesome, provocative protest production of “Measure for Measure.” All simplified superficial details aside, the message of “Beauty and the Beast” is quite timely and keeps with rhetorical questions and themes which seem to attract Marino: Can we see beneath the surface to the substance underneath? Can love save a life? Can we overcome our own fears and prejudices to find something greater and far more fulfilling than we imagined? Or do we find our walls and self-made prisons more comfortable?
Societal expectations and confinement of women also play a role—Beauty is named Beauty, but as she comments, she’s also a good swimmer and no one calls her “Mackerel.” She and Lettice are expected to keep house, cook and wait on their father; it is only after the spell is broken that any of them can come into their own. Not only are these themes of the moment, but Marino manages not to lose sight of them in the inevitable drive to happily-ever-after. Sometimes we need illusion and wizardry to be reminded that, though the questions are big, there is no reason the journey to finding answers can’t be beautiful and exciting. It’s pretty wonderful to watch Marino play with a fully loaded palate of theatre magic. He has proven he can create visually simple and striking shows which concentrate squarely on text. It’s fun to see him play with spectacle on a grand scale.
Beast seems hindered by the stilts he is on, as if they are a metaphor for another kind of prison (that of being hobbled and unable to escape); this Beast is definitely not chasing anyone down a flight of stairs. The desperation in Carter’s voice when he asks Beauty to kiss him, to love him, to marry him, is plaintive and real. It changes from, first, “Would you release me from this spell?” to “Would you love me?”
Equally real is Carr’s reluctance as Beauty to either acquiesce or give Beast false hope. How lovely to see her and Owens revel with joy in sharing life in all its absurdities with a loved one—their elation is infectious. So is Carr’s delight at wearing trousers instead of a dress (gender roles and expectations surfacing again).
Josh Browner creates the father as a basically inept human being who has wound up with the responsibility of two other lives. Beauty seems to understand he hasn’t got a clue, but Lettice wants him to be better, to be more so she can be more. Jessica Gift makes Lettice a memorable character with her absurd demands and desperation to be noticed. Frankly, she was one of my favorites. If I had to pick between spending an evening with her or Beauty, there would be no contest. But Beast doesn’t share my opinion, and it’s his spell to break.
The Beauty and Beast sequences are what everyone expects with wonderful theatrical magic. Mark D. Sorensen designed a beautiful and wonderful onstage costume change for beauty that had the audience audibly gasp. But the Man in Pink and Cecile upstage everything—they are just so irresistibly over the top. Johnson’s Cecile has a French accent John Cleese would love. She also has an itch to sing that demands to be scratched, even with the direst of consequences.
Choufani has wrangled some of the best comic dialogue in the show, which he delivers with great determination and conviction. Together they ride the waves of humor and pathos, to travel an unexpected yet poignant journey. It’s all underscored by Varnam and the Insect Orchestra to add dimensionality to an already multi-faceted production. Having a live orchestra makes such a difference in this experience, and the musicians really give Varnam’s score a three-dimensionality to enhance every aspect of such an enchanting show.
If anyone is looking for an opportunity to introduce a child to the big magic of theatre, this is a great choice. The sets, costumes and projections are awe-inducing. The performers are infectiously joyous, the music is delightful and almost celestial.