Play review

'Beauty and the Beast,' a timeless love story

Photo Courtesy of Ed Krieger LOVE IS BLIND- Ashley Moniz (Belle) waltzes with Chris Warren Gilbert  (Beast)  in  the  Cabrillo  Music  Theatre's  production  of

Photo Courtesy of Ed Krieger LOVE IS BLIND- Ashley Moniz (Belle) waltzes with Chris Warren Gilbert (Beast) in the Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” The show runs through Sun., Aug.5 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

The Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza debut Friday of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” coincided with the announcement from Broadway of the closing of the venerable Disney fantasy after 13 years and more than 5,000 performances.

Considering Cabrillo’s stellar production of the show on opening night, it could very well duplicate that record here. A delight on all levels, “Beauty” charmed young and old alike with its dramatization of the saying, “Beauty is only skin deep.”

The show is based on the 1991 Disney animated feature- not from the centuries-old fairy tale, but the 1946 French film, “La Belle et le Bête.” In that film, Beauty’s name is Belle, the character of the boorish Gaston is introduced, and the Beast’s servants are inanimate objects brought to life.

The coming-of-age story, in which a young girl needs to choose between two male suitors, is enhanced by the addition of more inanimate characters, a first in Broadway theater.

As Belle, Ashley Moniz, a drama student at UC Irvine, has the perfect voice for the character. It has the youthful clarity the character needs, rather than the operatic maturity of most female leading roles.

Moniz’s best moments are those scenes with Gaston, played by the terrific Matt Merchant, who has made a career out of portraying Broadway bad guys.

Gaston is probably the most conceited character in the history of the musical theater, and Merchant does him to the hilt- posing, preening and leaping about. His seamless transformation from a harmless buffoon to a menacing murderous villain is a highlight of the show.

Chris Warren Gilbert is a powerful Beast, able to effectively convey the various elements of his character- ferocity, frustration and tenderness- despite the confines of his heavy makeup.

As the French candelabra Lumiére, Joshua Finkel nearly outshone (pun intended) all the other performers. Finkel led the show’s most delightful musical sequence, the can-canlike “Be Our Guest,” featuring a boutique of high-kicking animated kitchen utensils.

The supporting cast was equally memorable. Disney productions often use Laurel and Hardylike comedy pairs to offset romantic leads, and James W. Gruessing Jr.’s grousewithaheart Cogsworth is the perfect foil for Finkel’s Lumiére. David Gordon’s clownish Lefou reflects another favorite Disney device, the dastardly yet comical sidekick to the lead villain.

The portrayals of the other minor characters were no less sparkling, including Lisa Donahey (a wonderful Mrs. Potts), Daniel Ross Noble as the tumbling doormat, Jack Curenton as the avuncular Maurice and ten-year-old Brooke Kathleen Murphy as the disembodied Chip. As the armoire, Madame de la Grande Bouche, contralto Victoria Hart may have been the best of all. Hart’s divalike performance, despite being swallowed up by her bulky costume, was on par with any in the show.

Director Lewis Wilkenfeld made sure that all elements of his production were right on target.

The whimsical set design ranged from beautifully painted backdrops of the countryside to the interior of the castle, the contents of which brought to mind the angular, lopsided furniture in a Disney Fantasyland “dark ride.”

Besides the colorful costumes, the evocative lighting was also noteworthy, especially in the scenes in the Beast’s alcove and balcony.

Tom Griffin flawlessly led the 16-piece orchestra in the challenging score. The musical numbers included many songs written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for the 1991 film, including the aforementioned “Be Our Guest,” the title song and “Belle.” Ashman’s death from AIDS during the making of the film ended one of the most distinguished careers in the post-Rodgers and Hammerstein years.

For the Broadway version, composer Alan Menken teamed up with lyricist Tim Rice to add six more songs, two of these featuring Gaston, including the self-aggrandizing “Me,” which effectively introduces his character.

Also added was “Human Again,” sung by the enchanted castle objects, a song that was excised from the film but revived for the stage production.

“Beauty and the Beast” will delight children as well as their parents. Both contingents were thoroughly entertained by Cabrillo’s remarkable staging of what will continue to be a classic of musical theater.

“Beauty and the Beast” concludes its run Sunday, Aug. 5. For ticket information, call (805) 449-2787.

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