Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Not-So-Cranky Reviewer

Your humble reviewer has occasion to immerse himself in theatrical experiences in a variety of venues covering a fairly broad expanse of this nation of ours. I've visited theaters throughout California, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, and Washougal, Washington.

If you're anywhere near the Vancouver/Portland (the other Vancouver!) area today or next weekend, you owe it to yourself to enjoy "Beauty and the Beast" as presented by the Christian Youth Theater group. This is, of course, the Disney version of the show and is being staged in the Washburn Performing Arts Center at Washougal High School, about twenty minutes' drive from Vancouver, Washington.

Back in the day, yours truly was privileged to participate in the Teenage Drama Workshop. This was a summer drama camp that presented several musical productions throughout Simi Valley, California. The format was that of a true workshop; classes were given in various stage techniques, including set design and construction, as well as music and acting. It was all-inclusive and gave the students a chance to participate in all of the theatrical disciplines. The Christian Youth Theater is similar to this concept, except that it runs throughout the school year. They offer ten week sessions, at two hours per week, and an opportunity to participate in a major production. (I use "major" in the sense of "one humongous headache for the producers, but one thrilling show for the actors.")

The results are impressive.

Director Starleen Benke has crafted a wonderful children's fairy tale that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. This is possible because the kids, typically aged 10 through 18, have tremendous energy and not an insignificant amount of talent. The casting was extremely well balanced as to the ages and abilities of the principals. The chorus performed with tremendous gusto. On the one hand it's possible to argue that it's hard to go wrong with a Disney score, but it's altogether too easy to over-do such things. In the case of an iconic Disney characterization with so many familiar and favorite characters (Belle, the Beast, Cogsworth, Lumiere, and so on) it's even easier to fall into the emulation trap.

However, Benke largely succeeded in making the show her own, and allowing the kids to develop some wonderful characterizations along the way. My only quibble was with Belle (Abby Thompson). A wonderful actress with the chops required for the songs, they tried too hard to make her sound like Belle from the animated original. Indeed, it's hard to do any such production without at least trying to somewhat emulate these characters, but a female voice like Belle's is unique with its own timbre and cadence. Trying so hard to match those vocal qualities is akin to all those child actors of the 30's and 40's trying to sound just like Shirley Temple. It grates on the nerves after awhile. Still, such things are the responsibility of the director, and Ms. Thompson's performance was in all other respects equal to the task. Her singing left nothing to be desired, and she played a perfectly delightful Belle.

Also delightful was Casey Pitel as the Beast. A tall, good-looking young man, Casey brought a nice touch of vulnerability to his cantankerous exterior. He was also quite athletic in leaping about the stage, and highlighted the skills and talents of the ever-unseen set designers and carpenters.

All other support characters, from the pompous and fragile Cogsworth, to the effervescent and over-the-top Lumiere, down to the "Silly Girls" who titter and giggle endlessly over Gaston were all well casted and fun to watch. Mrs. Potts had to reach down in her range to handle the eponymous "Beauty and the Beast" number, but did a very credible job. Also worth mentioning are LeFou (Alex Low), Madame De La Grand Bouche (Janelle Harriman), Cogsworth (Scott Bradner), Lumiere (Caleb Adderly) and a wonderfully flirtatious Babette (the very French feather duster from the original) played by Aimee Hogan.

The production numbers were all comprised of a terrific form of controlled chaos, including some better-than-average dancing.

All in all, this show is well worth the $10 per seat. My entire family enjoyed themselves tremendously, and I'm pretty sure you will, too.

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