Beauty and the Beast has evolved into some sort of larger-than-life thing of its own in the past quarter century. It really owes all this to Disney's 1991 animated film, the gigantic success of which helped jump-start the company's nearly dormant animated movie division. Under the laws of nature, there was no reason to stop there and a live-action musical adaptation made its debut on Broadway less than three years hence.
On Broadway, the play ran for 13 years straight and has since been reborn as the live-action movie version released just months ago. But the play — to which long-time Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice lent a hand, penning additional songs — stands as a thing unto itself. And Ferndale Repertory Theatre, in a production impressively directed by Christopher Kehoe (FRT's Little Women), does a fine job with the story.
It'd be hard to imagine anyone around not familiar with the archetypal storyline based on the 18th century fable by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, which was itself rewritten and passed on through the ensuing years, with film adaptations here and there in the 20th century. The success of any staging of Beauty and the Beast hinges on finding a good Belle, which is no problem here. Elizabeth Hedlund, a relative newcomer as a lead around here, has an absolutely stunning voice and hits the necessary high notes magnificently, in addition to being an overall buoyant presence.
The play's opening number "Belle" is so rousing as to be a showstopper right off the bat and that could present a bit of a challenge. But it's a grand bit of exposition and flash, one ably brought to life by the show's large cast of dancers and chorus singers. This introduces us to gasbag Gaston (Gary Bowman), his bumbling sidekick LeFou (Ian Gamboa) and shortly thereafter Belle's inventor father, Maurice (Brad Harrington), whose getting lost in the woods leads to meeting the Beast (a very good Jaison Chand), a former handsome prince cursed forever to live out a lonely existence in his castle.
The theatrical version, as it was conceived in 1994, has eight additional songs by Rice and composer Alan Menken not present in the film, and after the opening of "Belle" the play loses steam as it moves through plot machinations and unremarkable songs that don't enliven the action. This doesn't really break until "Gaston," a classic comic-relief number late in the first act that again makes use of finely tuned choreography by Alexandra Blouin, topping even her most recent work on The Rocky Horror Picture Show last fall.
Even "Be Our Guest," in so many ways a Ziegfeld Follies-type marvel, can at times seem a bit busy and overly packed-in with participants and elements. So much of the story's middle shifts between the comic antics of the transformed-by-the curse characters and the story of Belle and the Beast, and doesn't always mesh well. But the structure does give Lumiere (Andre LaRocque), Cogsworth (Tyler Egerer), Mrs. Potts (Tina Toomata) and others opportunities for their own turns, and mostly the cast hits them well.
Beauty and the Beast has production values of which FRT should be quite proud. The costumes by Maryanne Scozzari (particularly Belle's signature yellow dress) are eye-poppingly great all around, and small touches like the rose petals that gently flutter down onstage at two points are beautiful. Then there's the comic effect of a Siri joke that I'll reveal no more about here.
Tackling something that looms iconic dating back centuries and that has recently been a blockbuster can't be easy. And despite its flaws, FRT's Beauty and the Beast escapes the fairy tale's perils.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production of Beauty and the Beast plays on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 3, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through June 4. For more information, call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's well-cast and affecting production of Third, about a professor who accuses a college jock of plagiarism amid a storm of her own personal conflicts, plays through May 20. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Dell'Arte's graduating MFA class takes the Carlo Theatre stage for the annual Thesis Festival with four of their one-act plays starting May 18 through May 28. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.