From the opening spotlight on an enchanted book to its happy-ever-after close, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Beauty and the Beast” will delight nostalgic millennials, their parents and scores of younger Belle wannabes, many of whom arrive in costume. This compact version runs seventy-five minutes, significantly shorter than the original 1991 animated film and the 1994 Broadway musical. The abbreviation keeps things crisp but retains the essential story and earworm songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.
“Beauty and the Beast” tells the “tale as old as time” story of Belle, charmingly played by Audrey Hare, a brave, smart, book-loving young woman who craves a more interesting life. She and her absent-minded inventor father, Maurice (well inhabited by Michael Kingston), are social outcasts—yet the townsfolk recognize her as the most beautiful girl in town. That opinion is shared by the narcissistic hunter and self-appointed hero Gaston, played with gusto by David Sajewich, who brings all the magnificent baritone, biceps and egotism a Disney villain requires. In the familiar story, a selfish prince—who was once something like Gaston—is cursed by an enchantress and transformed into the Beast, then locked away in an enchanted castle. His servants are also cursed and turned into household objects. The Beast can only break the spell by learning to love and earning love’s return. Mishaps and a brave trade lands Belle in the Beast’s castle.
Energetically directed and choreographed by Amber Mak, the production augments a simple physical set with clever projected backdrops that alternately turn the pages of a gigantic storybook and morph into the castle, tavern and town square.
Hare’s Belle is fierce and vulnerable, and one of the most satisfying elements of the show is how she and the cast manage to deliver emotional truths within the Disney characters. Belle’s “Home” is achingly sweet, and we sympathize with Jason Michael Evans’ Beast, and root for his redemption. Part of the show’s magic is the way it moves the animated version’s grand production numbers to the stage. “Be Our Guest,” led by the gifted, energetic Lumiere (Christopher Kale Jones), Mrs. Potts (Rebecca Prescott) and Chip (in this performance, played by the cute Evie Hsu), delivers a sparkling rendition that manages to be both precise and riotous. Even the dancing silverware sparkle. Sajewich delivers a showstopping “Gaston” backed by his hapless sidekick Le Fou, played by Sam Linda with the right mix of fawning and frustration. Rebecca Prescott as the anthropomorphized teapot Mrs. Potts offers an exquisite, eye-misting delivery of the title song. Supporting the strong ensemble singing throughout is a small but mighty pit orchestra which delivers a buoyant, outsized sound, capably led by pianist and conductor Charlotte Rivard-Hoster.
Theresa Ham’s costumes are vibrant, witty and well-engineered. The mechanics wow most in Mrs. Potts and her playful son Chip. Harriet Nzinga Plumpp as the animate, operatic coloratura singing bureau, Madame de la Grande Bouche, and Christopher Kale Jones as Lumiere and James Earl Jones II as Cogsworth, also make a strong case for singing furniture.
The universally talented cast adds creative touches to trusty gags—from Gaston’s self-admiring kiss in the mirror, to the group yoga breaths when the Beast is trying to self-regulate, to Cogsworth’s crowd-pleasing takes to the audience.
This “Beauty and the Beast” at Chicago Shakes brings a lot of well-honed magic to its shortened form and is a perfect summery confection.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, (312)595-5600, chicagoshakes.com/beauty, $42 adults, $26 children (12 & under). Through August 20.