Enchanting Beauty and the Beast Captivates Audiences at Theatre by the Sea

Trust me, seeing a show at Bill Hanney’s Theatre By The Sea (TBTS) is akin to capturing that perfect Instagram shot of summer at sunset. The drive down to South County is just long enough to feel like you’ve “gotten away” from it all, you are surrounded by beach cottages and they are literally putting on a show in a rustic barn. Mind you, it’s a perfectly done “Martha Stewart” kind of barn, complete with air conditioning, gourmet bistro and a lovely outdoor garden gazebo bar, but you get the idea. If there was a “glamping” version of summer stock, by gosh Theatre by the Sea would be crowned the grand diva of all the straw-hat barns in the land.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a show that comes complete with a long list of accolades and awards since it originally premiered in 1994. Based on the Academy Award-winning animated movie, it stands today as the 10th longest running show in Broadway history. Gorgeous sets, beautiful singing, supernatural characters and pure spectacle are not just anticipated, they are mandatory at this point in the show’s life.

Never fear, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is getting a first-rate staging at the hands of director Bob Richard and his choreographer wife Diane Laurenson on the (albeit tiny) stage of the historic barn theater. Amazingly, the production team has condensed the sets, musical numbers and even the special effects to fit within the constricts of the barn and without losing a moment of the dramatic storytelling. Truly, the heart of this production lies within its masterful storytelling. At times both epic and achingly tender, this production wonderfully highlights both the show’s humor and humanity.

Led by the utterly captivating Lauren Weinberg as ingénue Belle, the cast is first-rate. Among the star turns is Philip Bryan’s masterful performance as the cursed prince turned monster. Bryan’s vocals were a pleasant surprise, but what truly stood out for me was the agile comic timing and chemistry his Beast shared with Weinberg’s Belle. (Not an easy feat when you are buried beneath a heavy costume, wig and prosthetics!)

The role of ‘hero’ Gaston is played with spot-on aplomb by Wayne Hu. Hu’s Gaston is fueled by alpha-male swagger, vanity and puffed-up pretention – perfectly capturing the role as written. As an added bonus, he absolutely nails the role’s signature numbers with his resonant operatic voice. His sidekick Lefou is gleefully along for the ride, played with knockabout comic ease by Josh Houghton.

The larger-than-life roles of half-human, half-household objects are led by the delightful Josh Houghton as candelabra Lumiere, the perfectly pitched comic timing of Jeffrey Johnson II as clock Cogsworth, a warm and grounded Ellen Peterson as Mrs. Potts and the adorable Reid Taylor as her son, Chip. Melissa Jones is a hoot as the flirty French feather duster Babette and soprano Stacey Geer steals practically every scene she is in as the opera diva turned chest of drawers, Madame de la Grande Bouche.

The score, by Alan Menken, Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, features all the beloved songs from the movie, plus some originally cut from the film and even more added during later tours. All-in-all, the show is packed to the brim with musical numbers and reprises – perhaps overstuffed even. The ensemble absolutely dominates the group numbers, giving their all to the ridiculously energetic and entertaining “Gaston” and the dance-fueled showstopper “Be Our Guest.”

Set designer Kyle Dixon’s wonderfully evocative set pieces are whisked on and off stage with perfect precision. The team has brought a full array of spectacle to the TBTS stage: There are flying effects and magic props as well as the cumbersome, yet very creative costumes. Kudos to the designers, stage management and the running crew for making it all seem so effortless.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast continues at Bill Hanney’s Theatre By The Sea through August 12, with performances Tuesday through Sunday in the group’s historic barn theater at 364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield. Tickets are on sale online at theatrebythesea.com by phone at 401-782-8587 or in person at the theater’s box office.

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