Houston’s ownership of Beauty and the Beast is no small thing. After all, when Disney went looking to break into Broadway, it partnered with TUTS on this very show 25 years ago. The cast and crew spent months here in Houston creating, refining, and performing the musical before opening on the Great White Way in spring 1994.
Thus, as TUTS continues its 50th anniversary season and Beast celebrates its 25th, it’s altogether fitting that Houston’s homegrown musical theater producer should once again mount this production.
And what a production it is. By now, the story is familiar to nearly everyone with a working pulse. Belle, the bookworm beauty of the title, and her oddball inventor father, Maurice, live in a “small, provincial town” in France. She’s pursued relentlessly by the boorish Gaston, he of the thick neck and thicker head who’s “roughly the size of a barge.” While the simpering, silly girls of the town swoon over him, Belle resists, and when Maurice winds up prisoner in a castle ruled over by a fierce beast, Belle trades her life for his.
Little does she know, however, that the castle and its inhabitants have been placed under the spell of an enchantress who was rebuffed on a cold night by a spoiled prince. Said enchantress turned said prince into the Beast “for she could see there was no love in his heart,” with the caveat that if, before the last petals on the enchanted rose she gave him fell, he could learn to love and have someone love him in return, the spell would be broken.
It’s a fairy tale. A Disney fairy tale. You can do the math from here.
TUTS' production is simply gorgeous from start to finish, even if it’s not entirely flawless. Kelly Tighe’s sets—especially those of the town center and the beer hall where the citizens sing of Gaston’s glory—are brightly dazzling. The Beast’s castle is, by contrast, dark and foreboding, but the effect is achieved less with set pieces than with tables or oversized chairs sliding across the stage, leaving something wanting. Even the staircase to the West Wing, where the enchanted rose sits under glass, feels as though it should be grander. No real matter, though, because the true strength of this show is in its music.
The score by Alan Menken glistens and groans, brought gorgeously to life by Stephen W. Jones’s musical direction and Danny Troob’s orchestrations. The 20-piece orchestra creates the story’s light and dark places beautifully. Howard Ashman’s original songs and lyrics from the movie are intact, with additional material from longtime Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice, who took over writing duties after Ashman's 1991 death. They are clever and cloying, sometimes in equal measure.
See Exhibit A: “Me,” Gaston’s homage to himself used to woo Belle; “We shall be a perfect pair, rather like my thighs” might take the prize for most cringe-worthy lyric. But it’s hard to knock the infectious, joyful repartee of “Be Our Guest," including: “Beef ragout / Cheese soufflé / Pie and pudding, en flambé / We'll prepare and serve with flair / A culinary cabaret.”
Keith Hines is clearly having a blast as the egomaniacal Gaston, and he’s got pipes as big as those arm muscles. He sneers and serenades, an endless parody of himself, his preposterous wooing of Belle sometimes more comical than sinister. And he’s aided and abetted amiably by the hapless Lefou, his sidekick, played by Barrett Riggins, who pushes the bounds of eye-rolling overacting, which is likely more about direction than talent. The double act of Cogsworth and Lumiere, the clock and candelabra, are brightly done by Price Waldman and James Patterson; the latter’s flirtation with Nasia Thomas’ Babette the feather duster is delightful.
As the Beast, Michael Burrell snarls and scowls and shines. His evocative Act I showstopper, “If I Can’t Love Her,” is an anthem to love desired and lost, and showcases his vocal and acting range. He’s not well aided by his costume, which comes off as more cuddly than terrifying, but his evolution through the show is a lovely bookend to Belle’s growth and understanding.
And speaking of Belle, the whole show is carried spectacularly upon the shoulders of Delphi Borich, fresh off the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. As Belle, she’s spunky and sympathetic, smart and sassy, with a voice that rings with sophistication, whether she’s belting the final note of the “Belle” reprise or being wistful in “Home.” She drives the show forward, playing this heroine who won’t be content to sit and wait on some prince to save her, with truthful optimism.
Something else striking—and singularly Houston—about the show is TUTS’ inclusion of students from both its Humphreys School of Musical Theatre and The River in its casting, creating an ensemble that looks as diverse as Houston does. It was a delight to see Brennan Emeka, who is part of both programs, in his first mainstage role as Chip, after bringing smiles to everyone in the ensemble of this season's Oklahoma! The casting decisions lend an impressive overlay to the show, proving that stories like this cross any number of boundaries.
Where the show falls flat occasionally is in its technology—or lack thereof. The climactic transformation of the Beast isn’t particularly climactic or even dramatic, and “Be Our Guest,” which has always been a stand-out in the show, feels a bit like too many people on stage without enough lighting or staging changes to carry off the production number.
But the flaws are minor compared to the heart behind this much-loved and decidedly hometown show. And by bringing Beauty and the Beast back to its stage, TUTS proves beyond any doubt why Disney came to them in the first place: TUTS not only has Houston’s can-do spirit, it’s a regional force in dynamic musical theater.
Thru Dec. 23. Tickets from $43.50. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. More info and tickets at tuts.com.