‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a comedic hit despite dramatic stumbles

March 23, 2018

“Beauty and the Beast,” the newest show from Brandeis’ Undergraduate Theater Collective (UTC) hits all the high notes of the upbeat musical it seeks to be. The show is the UTC’s open-cast show, which denies no actor entry, and it is a remarkable testament to either Brandeis students’ natural acting ability or director Maia Cataldo’s ’20 ability to marshal a large number and variety of actors into a relatively impressive production.

“Beauty and the Beast” centers on musical numbers and the comedic charisma of many of its performers. The production displays a keen sense of the jokes their audience wants and delivers with slapstick, swaggering and just enough flirting. The large musical numbers, anchored by the thrilling, albeit a tad busy, choreography from Liora Lilienthal ’20 and Sophie Brill Weitz ’21, match this spirit by bringing a joyous mood to the stage.

The other most impressive thread of the show, however, was the performance from Kait Polgar ’21 as the eternally lovely Belle. With an angelic voice, one of the few in the show capable of truly carrying a solo, and a combination of self-assurance, cynical sarcasm and stubbornness, Polgar creates a Belle who not only lives up to the character’s beautiful reputation but possesses an imposing inner strength. This strength is perhaps explained by the fact that she is matched against Liam Gladding’s ’21 Gaston, who embodies the character’s trademark arrogant ignorance and dashing demeanor, as well as his eternal moodiness.

The Beast, played by Benjamin Steinberg ’18, lacks some of this fierceness but makes up for it with a touching sensitivity that makes it clear why Belle comes back to him.

The ensemble and supporting characters similarly embody significant aspects of their characters. Belle’s mother, played by Kat Lawrence ’20, nails the “kooky inventor” vibe while Ben Greene ’21 is adorable in his exaggeratedly timid and ingratiating portrayal of Gaston’s eternally rejected companion, Lefou.

Mendel Weintraub ’21, as the animated candlestick Lumiere, brings an extra comedic edge with a Pepe le Pew-style accent and the spirit to match. His companions bounce off this absurdity into more jokes, with straight man Cogsworth played by Anderson Stinson III ’21 pointing out his absurdity while Lumiere’s lover, the squeaky feather brush Babette played by Vanessa Mark ’21 matches and feeds the ridiculous romance.

The ensemble acts as a subtle reinforcement of each scene’s mood, as well as creating surprisingly engaging narratives and characters behind the leads. In dramatic scenes they were an impressive living background, displaying enough individual character to make the show’s universe feel full but also enough deference to the leads that it was clear this full universe does indeed revolve around the people singing louder.

In the musical scenes, when synced up, they created an impressive backing track which often sounded better than the leads they were backing. Especially notable among this group were the Silly Girls, Gaston’s devoted admirers who gave the Fainting Fan archetype a uniquely amusing feel.

The technical elements of the show, supervised by technical director Jacob Bers ’20, filled a similar role, reinforcing the mood with elements even less noticeable. The set, designed by Aislyn Fair ’19, was simple, with a back image which shifted to change scenes and side stair-pieces to provide a staging point for dramatic level changes and for dance moves to launch off from. The lights, designed by Bers, shifted to help establish setting and mood and were accompanied by the sound design by Elana Israel ’18 and Rebecca Goldfarb ’21, which went a long way towards making the on-stage action feel real.

The show, however, failed to establish a consistent theme. Many of the emotional promises of the Beauty and the Beast were not delivered on: The Beast never felt vicious enough to make his redemption truly significant, he and Belle never displayed quite enough chemistry to make their love story emotional, and Gaston and his mob never transitioned out of their comical mood to display true depravity. If intentional, a departure from the traditional takes on the characters and story can be remarkably effective, but this “Beauty” failed to replace these traditional arcs with new interpretations. Rather, it feels as if the show’s emphasis on comedy was brought to the climatic and serious scenes, and when the material proved too heavy to handle it was neglected in favor of the larger musical numbers and naturally comedic scenes.

Despite these misfires, which show up in almost every student musical, the performance is highly entertaining. If you like musicals because of their exaggerated and exuberant energy, this delivers on all fronts. The creators of the show do have an excellent sense of what jokes their audience are looking for and go out of their way to satisfy the demand. It even has Gaston and Lefou doing (a truly impressive) worm.

Editor’s Note: Rebecca Goldfarb is an Arts editor for The Hoot.

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