In one of the savviest theater marketing moves of recent memory, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre includes a prominent tagline under the title of its new production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: “A 75-minute family musical.”
Many tourists and locals heading to Navy Pier this summer will clock that tagline and realize they can give their fidgety kids a cultural treat while immersing themselves in a classic story presented in air-conditioned comfort before plunging back into the pier’s muggy delights in just over an hour. What a blissful break!
Even better, this brisk one-act production succeeds on the merits, with beautifully costumed actors delivering Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s wonderful songs in fine voice and backed by four splendid live musicians. What’s not to like?
Parents sipping a frosty beverage while their youngsters watch the proceedings with unusually rapt attention will feel a special kinship to the cast as they execute a complex tavern dance that includes syncopated clacking of their pewter mugs.
The kids will be in awe of the fearsome Beast even as mom and dad wonder how he’s going to possibly win Belle’s heart in believable fashion with the clock ticking faster than James Earl Jones II’s Cogsworth can swing the pendulum on his chest. Thanks to director and choreographer Amber Mak and soulful performances by leads Jason Michael Evans and Audrey Hare, the unlikely transition from fear and hatred to blossoming love doesn’t feel forced.
Beyond the strong leads, highlight performers include James Earl Jones II and Christopher Kale Jones, who wring all the possible laughs and pathos out of Cogsworth and Lumiere. David Sajewich has a great over-the-top time playing dunderheaded villain Gaston, while Michael Kingston injects some welcome doting dad heart into the proceedings as eccentric inventor Maurice. Audiences will be left wanting more of Harriet Nzinga Plumpp’s superb singing and comic timing in the too-small role of Madame de la Grande Bouche.
It may be a tale as old as time, but this Beauty and the Beast offers a brief refreshing respite to families at Navy Pier this summer.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 20 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren