Recently, Dennis Assaf -- the artistic director, conductor and driving force behind the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) -- became one of the first producers to mount a homegrown version of the blockbuster.
Of course, Assaf is not known for letting the grass grow under his feet. Having added an orchestra pit to the East Jefferson High School auditorium, where the JPAS first planted its flag, Assaf has now taken to doing shows at the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre as well. As if that wasn't enough, he hopes to break ground on a completely new JPAS theater next year. That's a helluva lot of chutzpah, as they say in New York City.
For icing on the cake, the JPAS' production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast have moved to the Grand Casino in Biloxi, Miss., where it is scheduled to perform for a month. If audience reactions at the East Jefferson theater were an indicator, this rousing production will score a box office success. Not only did the JPAS audience applaud a sponsor (who was thanked before the show) and Assaf himself, when he took the podium, they applauded the stage mist as it drifted out from under the curtain and started pouring into the orchestra pit.
Stage mist was just one of the special effects on display. Early on, an old crone turned into a gorgeous enchantress and flew away. And she was not the only flying creature! There were also flaming torches and assorted pyrotechnical displays. Scenery moved and transformed before our eyes. Then, there were the snazzy costumes, particularly the costumes of the people/things: Lumiere (Scott Sauber), the candlestick man; Cogsworth (Marc Belloni), the clock man; Mrs. Potts (Heidi Junius), the teapot lady; and Chip (David Bologna), her teacup son. To mention just a few.
While it's worthwhile pointing out the extravagant visual fancy of the JPAS show, I don't want to give the impression that the cast did not live up to their surroundings. Under Kenneth Beck's direction, the show was exuberantly embodied by a troupe of pros. The songs were well sung and the dance numbers enjoyable.
Savannah Wise was a charming Belle, Stuart Metcalf a sympathetic beast, and Alan Payne an amusingly pompous Gaston. The secondary roles were often delightfully portrayed -- the people/things listed above, among many others.
I should pause to mention that the show is not called simply Beauty and the Beast, but Disney's Beauty and the Beast. This is as it should be for a variety of reasons -- some having to do with publicity, no doubt, as the Disney name is a big draw. However, there are other reasons why "Disney" should be attached to this version of the ancient tale. The entertainment giant has left its mark, for better and for worse.
On the positive side, one might put the people/things. The idea is that the curse that turned the prince into a beast also blighted his retinue. Aside from their comic appeal, these characters serve a dramatic function in much the same way as the mice did in the Disney version of Cinderella. They soften the grisly aspects of the tale and help move the narrative forward.
On the negative side, there is the illogical nature of the beast. We first see him as a prince, who was punished by an enchantress. Well, OK; that sets up the rest of the story. The problem is that it also starts us out by establishing him as a prince, but the beast never acts like an old-world prince; he acts like an American adolescent. The people/things, on the contrary, seem very much aware of their predicament and act like the people/things they are.
Of course, it's important to remember that Disney's Beauty and the Beast (like the recent presidential election campaign) is geared essentially for children. In fact, part of the fun -- before the show, after the show and during the intermission -- is watching the tots. For instance, at the recent JPAS production, I saw one little girl dressed in a costume that was identical to the Belle onstage, and there was no doubt the little girl was living the part. In the end, one can carp and wish for more myth and less comic strip. But Disney's Beauty and the Beast is a remarkable show. Bringing along a kid or two may be the best guarantee of enjoying it.