Review of “Beauty and the Beast” at Vivre Theatre

    When the folks at Disney made their animated version of the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, they made several smart choices. They had Alan Menken write the music and Howard Ashman the lyrics. They called Beauty Belle and made her a book-loving young woman with a strong will and a mind of her own. They made her father a charmingly eccentric inventor instead of a merchant. They gave her a preening, self-infatuated, muscle-bound suitor to ramp up both the comedy and the drama. And they made the servants in the Beast’s castle subject, like the Beast, to the curse that had been placed on him.

    All of these carried over to the stage version of the movie, with more songs by Menken and Tim Rice (Ashman had died), and with a stage-worthy book adapted by Linda Woolverton from her screenplay.

    And all of these can be found in the current production by Vivre Theatre at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre. 

    They may not be quite as we have seen them at the Muny and the Fox. The story provides opportunities for moments of grand theatrical display and stage magic. Vivre is a community theatre company, with obviously limited budget and resources. But they are a very resourceful, inventive, and intelligent group. 

    Director Susie Allmendinger and scenic designer George Shea made smart use of the musical theatre tradition of scenes that use the full expanse of the stage to display elaborate sets alternating with smaller scenes played in a limited area downstage while stagehands can change the elaborate set upstage. For Vivre’s Beauty and the Beast, the full stage housed the elaborate castle of the Beast, full of mysterious corners and enticing openings. Then a curtain dropped to hide the castle, while whimsically painted set pieces flew in to make the village market, the home of Belle and her father, and just the dimly lighted bare stage to set our hearts racing in the dark forest, home of the ravenous wolves. An efficient crew made the minimal adjustments of furniture under the guidance of Stage Manager Hannah Marie Meyers during brief blackouts, with little slowing of the well-paced performance.

    The one disappointment came near the end, when the Beast, now loved by Belle, turns back into the Prince. In professional productions, this can be quite an impressive spectacle, with lights flashing, a body spinning, the orchestra excited. Because this production had handled other challenges, like the “Be Our Guest” feast, I was curious to see what they had come up with for this. But they didn’t. They just lower the lights long enough for the Beast to get out of his fur and into his royal uniform. I guess it was too big a challenge. The orchestra was properly excited, however. It was a small, easily forgivable flaw in a splendid production.

    Vivre Theatre was originally called the Next Generation Theatre Company. Young people mostly in their 20s who had  developed an interest in theatre in high school and college wanted to continue the work, perhaps even make it a profession. They had all had some degree of training in acting, singing, dancing, and theatre crafts. The training shows in Beauty and the Beast. Director Allmendinger has a cast who know how to act. Choreographer Carly Niehaus works with experienced dancers. Music Director Brandon Thompson has trained singers, many with very fine voices. 

    That’s true of both Beauty, Lindy Elliott, and Beast, Quentin James Cockerham. Both movingly portray the slow unfolding of the affection between their characters. As the villain Gaston, Scott Degitz-Fries obviously spends time in the gym. He carefully calibrates the degrees to which Gaston must be convincingly vicious and convincingly ridiculous. Jack Meyers tosses off slapstick gymnastics as Gaston’s sidekick Lefou. Nicholas Smith plays Belle’s father Maurice, an eccentric inventor, more eccentric than lovable in Smith’s performance. The fine dancer and comedian Bradley Bliven sparkles as Lumiere, the maitre d’ of the Beast’s castle, gradually turning into a candelabra. April McCandless’s Cogsworth the butler is half a clock, Rebecca Hatlelid’s Babbette the maid continues to be seductive even as she transitions into a feather duster, Tina Poynter is matronly as Mrs. Potts the tea-pot, Alexandria Eiler (whom I saw) and  Ephraim Plotzke alternate as her son the cracked teacup Chip, and Rachel Homolak has the full operatic voice demanded for the former star now becoming a wardrobe Madame de la Grand Bouche. Claire Baur, Tychirrra Moreno, and Macy White moon and swoon over Gaston as the Silly Girls. With shrewd help from designer Riley Clute’s distinctive costumes and the tonsorial skills of wigstress Jacqueline Roush (that’s a new term for me), Angela Brandow, Kayla Dressman, Emerson Lentz, Victoria Liniger, and Nicholas Smith double and even triple as townspeople, the castle’s enchanted objects, and a couple of wolves. Pat Murphy designed the sound, and Joseph Eckelkamp, Julie A. Merkle, and Ryan Schaper designed the lights.

    Solid, accomplished work by all in Vivre Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by Julie A. Merkle