The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn has taken some chances in its 2018-19 season, which has included the new musicals “Benny and Joon” and “My Very Own British Invasion.” But “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” which closes the season with a run that lasts through July 3, is about as sure a bet as you can make.
A re-creation of the long-running Broadway musical (adapted from the hugely popular 1991 animated film), it’s got beloved songs (“Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast”), a timeless story, and as lavish a production as you’re likely to see at a New Jersey theater this year (with the possible exception of the McCarter Theatre Center’s “A Christmas Carol”). And, sure enough, I enjoyed it thoroughly when I saw it on opening night (June 2). In fact, I can hardly imagine any theater-goer, of any age, not doing the same.
Sure, I could quibble with a few things. There’s a little too much cheap humor for my taste — too many slapstick-y, almost Three Stooges-like bonks on the head. And the story is not really complex enough to sustain a full-length musical without some padding here and there.
But this is still a big, dazzling production, with lots of moving pieces that director Mark S. Hoebee (also the Paper Mill’s producing artistic director) meshes together with flawless precision. The score is filled with memorable songs (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice), and the featured actors all give winning performances. There is even got a magic trick that will leave you scratching your head in wonder.
Belinda Allyn, who was excellent as Maria in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2016 production of “West Side Story,” conveys the right mix of innocence and conviction as Belle, the book-loving young woman who rejects a comically lunkheaded suitor, Gaston (Stephen Mark Lukas), at the start of the musical.
“How can you read this? There’s no pictures,” he says when he looks at one of her books.
Soon, though, Belle has bigger problems, as she finds herself imprisoned in the castle of Beast (Tally Sessions), who has been cursed to live as a half-animal until he manages to love and — an even bigger challenge — to be loved.
As part of the curse, Beast’s servants are all turning into objects. Lumiere (Gavin Lee) is half-man, half-candelabra, for instance, and Lumiere’s friend Cogsworth (Kevin Ligon) is half man, half-clock. They will only be saved from full conversion if Beast can reverse the curse. Beast only has a finite amount of time to get that done, though, and it’s running out.
Naturally, Belle is repulsed by the grim Beast, at first. But slowly, she begins to see that he’s got a heart, and some clumsy charm, underneath it all. Meanwhile, Gaston and his goofy assistant Lefou (Kevin Curtis) figure out where Belle is, and complicate things for a while.
Lukas (as the vain, dense Gaston) and Lee (as the eternally grinning would-be ladies’ man Lumiere) get the most laughs, and Sessions delivers some stirring passion on Beast’s big ballad, “If I Can’t Love Her.” With about 30 actors in the cast, the production numbers — the opening “Belle,” the pub-set “Gaston” and the fantastical, cheerful “Be Our Guest,” where Lumiere, Cogsworth and their fellow semi-human servants pull out all the stops to welcome Belle — have an infectious, boisterous energy.
It’s a sign of how stellar this cast is that even relatively small roles have distinguished, veteran actors playing them: Joel Blum plays Belle’s sweet, eccentric father Maurice, for instance, while Donna English is Madame de la Grande Bouche, an opera-loving servant whose vanity has caused her to start turning into the kind of dressing table that’s sometimes called a vanity.
As I hope you can tell by the three photos included here (and the video below), the scenic design (by Kelly James Tighe) and costumes (by Leon Dobkowski, with Halsey Onstage handling the enchanted objects) are elaborate and colorful and impressive in their own right.
There’s a morale to “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” — hinted at in the spoken introduction, just so no one misses it: Don’t be deceived by appearances, since true beauty is found within. Granted, it may seem a bit odd to deliver that message in a musical as visually stunning as this one. But it’s there, for those who want it, or need it.
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through July 3; visit papermill.org.
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