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Beauty and the Beast — Ever Just the Same, Ever as Before

Paper Mill Playhouse wraps up its 2018-19 season with Disney's maiden stage voyage.

Tally Sessions and Belinda Allyn as the title stars of Beauty and the Beast, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Mike Nitzel Photography)

Paper Mill Playhouse continues its balancing act of developing new work and reviving tried-and-true crowd-pleasers with Disney's Beauty and the Beast, the final production of the theater's 2018-19 season. The flagship Disney musical, which premiered on Broadway 25 years ago, follows up Paper Mill's East Coast premiere of the new musical Benny & Joon, which featured understated sets and a cast of fewer than 10 people. If that wasn't your speed (or even if it was), this is your chance to get in your high-kicking, big-costumed, musical-theater fireworks before the summer hiatus.

Magic curse. Dancing teacups. A beauty learning to love a beast (and vice versa). The story of Beauty and the Beast is as ingrained in popular culture as its songs and signature yellow ball gown have become. And boasting an ensemble of over 30, Paper Mill's Beauty and the Beast achieves the grand effect required for the musical's iconic showstoppers like "Be Our Guest" (a parade of Leon Dobkowski's anthropomorphic costumes) and "Gaston" (one of the many platforms for Alex Sanchez's choreography), first seen in animated form in 1991.

Director Mark S. Hoebee has a vibrant production when it's rolling along at 100 mph, with animated energy to spare. It's when things don't have to go to 11 that Hoebee loses some of the heart that makes Beauty and the Beast as pleasing to adults as it is to children — though this production will delight any budding Broadway baby.

I would even venture to say that Hoebee directs this production for its younger audiences, judging by the accomplished but thoroughly Disney-fied performances. Belinda Allyn delivers a frothy version of Belle (the pre-Hermione heroine of bookworms everywhere), singing the part beautifully but without the small dose of gravitas needed to keep her from floating away. Tally Sessions as the Beast, on the other hand, gets to open the show with plenty of sobriety, and it suits him and his voice beautifully. His performance promises a heartwarming transformation, which disappointingly ends up including more silly moments than touching ones as he and Belle begin to fall in love.

That tracks with the broad direction given to most of the show's humor, with Belle's father, Maurice (Joel Blum), leaning toward the clownish side of mad scientist, and Gaston's sidekick, Lefou (Kevin Curtis), going full zany slapstick. Fortunately, Gaston's personality has to be as large (and toxically masculine) as his biceps — a feat that Stephen Mark Lukas achieves in a role that seems to have been made for him and his bellowing bass-baritone.

The enchanted furniture we meet when Belle lands herself prisoner in the Beast's castle, oddly enough, comprise the most calibrated performances of the show. Gavin Lee (a two-time Tony nominee and last season's Broadway Squidward in The SpongeBob Musical) handily emcees "Be Our Guest" as the flirtatious Lumiere, and makes up half of a delightful comedy duo, completed by Kevin Ligon as Cogsworth. Donna English, meanwhile, channels her inner opera diva as Madame de la Grande Bouche (despite her inhibiting wardrobe costume), and Stacia Fernandez does the great Angela Lansbury proud with her soothing rendition of the title song as the maternal Mrs. Potts. It may not be a perfect Beauty and the Beast, but if you're feeling that itch for Disney pomp buttoned with wedding bells and a confetti shower, this will certainly scratch it.

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