- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

Disney’s Broadway musical “Beauty and the Beast” is notorious for spectacle, one boffo production number on top of another, costumes and special effects by the ton. How can a small dinner theater like Toby’s ever expect to re-create such lavishness?

Despite the limitations of a theater in the round, Toby’s manages to capture the showbizzy enchantment of “Beauty and the Beast” with economy and style — dancing forks, china plates doing the can-can, popping champagne corks and all. The costumes by Samn Huffer are especially expert, from the puffs of steam rising out of Mrs. Potts’ (Lani Novak Howe) tea-cozy-clad spout to the well-padded majesty of Madame de la Grande Bouche’s (Rachel Abrams) ensemble, a velvet-paneled bureau that glides along the set on tiny wheels.

Lumiere (Christopher Gerkin), the lascivious butler, sports hands that look like sputtering candles, and servant Cogsworth (the debonair David James) has a clock costume complete with moving hands and a comically swaying pendulum. There’s an acrobatic Doormat (Michael Siller) who does handsprings across the stage, seemingly unfettered by a costume that swathes him in an oversized oriental rug, and there’s a group of Napkins (Heather Beck, Dianna Collins, Felicia Curry, Roe Kizeik, and Amanda Parker), their bodices pleated like fine napery, who execute dance steps worthy of the Folies Bergere.

Toby’s may not have a Disney-sized budget, but it makes up for that with ingenuity and Broadway-caliber voices. As Belle, the bookworm who finds a soul mate in the Beast (the sturdy-voiced J.P. Gulla), Janine Gulisano exudes the galloping heartiness of a girl who hasn’t yet found her true place in the world. Her singing is sweet and ardent without being cloying.

The song “Belle,” the musical’s opening number, combines soaring music and catty lyrics as the people of Belle’s small French town condemn her as “odd” because of her love of reading, her daydreams of escaping provincialism and her refusal to marry the town hunk, Gaston (Russell Sunday), a witty parody of the macho stereotype with his hirsuteness and deranged love of the hunt.

Ultimately, Belle realizes her dreams — but not the way she planned.

After her father stumbles upon the Beast’s enchanted castle and is held prisoner, Belle offers up her life for his. The Beast and his household are captivated by the selflessness and headstrong spirit of Belle, who could be the catalyst needed to break the spell that has gripped the castle for 10 years.

First, though, the Beast must be tamed and trained to woo Belle in a princely fashion.

The musical shifts between the Beast’s growly, often desperate attempts to be a romantic swain and the household’s efforts to make Belle fall in love with the place. The centerpiece of their labors is the gigantic production number “Be Our Guest,” a soup-to-nuts invitation to Belle to feel welcome.

Director Toby Orenstein pulls it off with “can you top this?” showmanship, although the stage does sometimes seem more like an obstacle course than a cavalcade of dancing characters.

The emerging love between Belle and the Beast is perfectly credible, and they make a cute couple, even if the Beast could use a shave and some orthodontia. Yet the beguiling surprises of “Beauty and the Beast” are some of the fresh faces around town playing character roles.

The standouts include Mr. Gerkin as the hip-wriggling, eyebrow-arching Lumiere, Andrew Frace as the rubbery buffoon Lefou, and Mr. Siller’s tumbling Doormat. Also excellent are familiar faces including Mr. Sunday, who plays Gaston with an Elvis pompadour, a macho swagger and testosterone to spare.

“Beauty and the Beast” is decidedly kiddie fare, and children will love its simple story and grandly silly costumes. At the same time, adults will appreciate the sophistication of the show’s lyrics as well as its message that even the most beastly and odd among us can find love and acceptance.

WHAT: “Beauty and the Beast,” by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

WHERE: Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (show is at 8:15 p.m.), 10:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays (show is at 1:15 p.m.), 5 p.m. Sundays (show is at 7:15 p.m.). Through July 17.

TICKETS: $39 to $44


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