As you know if you have kids, “Beauty and the Beast” — the bookish child’s Disney favorite — is having a moment right now, in the wake of the hugely successful live action film starring Emma Watson.
Which is perhaps why The Growing Stage in Netcong is opening its season of kid-centric theatricals with the first-in-Jersey professional production of the Broadway musical version of “Beauty and the Beast.” And it’s a charmer — a great introduction to live musicals for kids, sure, but a fairly entertaining diversion for adults as well.
The Growing Stage’s home is a circa 1919 vaudeville house, now beautifully restored and decked out with murals, gilt and a big chandelier. It’s lovely, and my kid companion initially found the building almost as interesting as the show.
This lavish production lives up to the gilded setting: The costumes that turn the actors into enchanted tea pots, candelabras and wolves are wonders of invention. (How Chip, played by child actor Brian Carlson, gets inside that teacup was the subject of much discussion on our drive home.) Everyone’s favorite production number, the dinner-becomes-a-show “Be Our Guest,” was a particular delight, with high-kicking chorus girls sporting crowns of golden cutlery and a dancing cheese grater among the background characters. Kudos to the inventive choreographer Jillian Petrie for marshalling such a large cast on a modest-sized stage.
The settings — by the Growing Stage’s artist-in-residence, Perry Arthur Kroeger —are impressive as well. His panels of William Morris-ish branches against the sky readily conjure the threatening forest, and swirls of starlight on giant windows frame the Beast’s dining room. The whole show is a treat to look at.
Emily Cara Portune leads the large cast as Belle; she’s both a strong singer and convincing as the kind of take-no-prisoners firebrand who’d barge into a strange castle without a second thought. Jason Pumarada, in the comparatively thankless role of the Beast, stomps and growls impressively, but reveals a gorgeous, velvety voice when he finally gets to sing near the end of the first act. (One complaint: His beastliness is conveyed by a Gene Simmons wig, Elvis sideburns and what looks like a chipmunk mask. The getup doesn’t match the rest of the production’s high standards; this monster wouldn’t scare Cinderella, let alone Belle.)
The rubber-faced Donald Danford as LeFou, and hip-twitching Davis Cameron Lemley as Lumière, steal every scene they’re in. So do Jeorgi Smith, Mary Berko and Allie Ambriano as the despicable Gaston’s trio of groupies.
If you haven’t seen it before — I had not — the musical is subtly different from the film versions of the tale. In many ways, it’s darker.
Of course, in the age of President Trump, and in the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein’s disgrace, it’s almost impossible to watch “Beauty and the Beast” and not see it as the story of a young girl being pressured to accept the uninvited romantic advances of not one but two older men in whom she has no interest. One has her father committed to an asylum to force her hand. The other just throws her in a dungeon; that’s the good guy. As fairytales go, this is grimmer than Grimm.
But the musical also emphasizes the plight of the enchanted castle servants who mourn that they’re slowly losing their humanity as they sprout cogs and knobs that cover their hands and heads. It’s a weirdly middle-aged complaint; anyone stuck in a job they felt was turning them into a soulless functionary could certainly relate.
Happily, none of those adult shadings seemed to reach the audience of kids, who sang along to the familiar songs and howled with laughter at the fight between the villagers and the enchanted castle denizens.
And the Growing Stage goes out of its way to make the whole experience welcoming to a young audience: Shows are mostly afternoon matinees. There are coloring book programs for the children, juice boxes for sale (at shockingly reasonable prices) and, after the last bow, the whole cast troupes into the lobby, in costume, to pose for photos and sign autographs (in character).
Judging by the crowd around Belle, this may have been the highlight of the afternoon for many young ones in the audience, despite the excellence of the show.
“Beauty and the Beast” will be at the Growing Stage in Netcong through Oct. 29; visit growingstage.com.