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Grand Rapids Civic Theatre Stages Disney's Beauty and the Beast

Three decades after the movie's release, Disney's Beauty and the Beast retains much of its charm.

/Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, released in 1946, was some kind of miracle. It expanded on the 1757 fairy tale of the same name, telling a story both enchanting and, at times, a little scary. In one typically surreal touch, real arms, emerging from holes in the palace walls, bear torches. Even now, nearly eighty years later, it feels like a dream.

Traces of that dream remain in Disney's 1991 film. Added to it are humor, whimsy and a winking elegance that makes itself known most often in the gorgeously written songs. It's one thing for a movie to include a preening, sexist bully. It's quite another to hear him sing, with no hint of irony, "I use antlers in all of my decorating." The genius of the film is that its knowingness never undercuts its magic, but enhances it. The musical, onstage at ​Grand Rapids Civic Theatre & School of Theatre Arts ( through Dec. 17, seeks to transmit that music to the stage.

Hailie MacKay stars as Belle, the beautiful young woman who dreams of life far away from her provincial French hometown. She's polite and a devoted daughter to her father Maurice, but what can you make of someone whose nose is always stuck in a book? Gaston (Kevin McCasland), the local hunk, thinks he can pry her away from all that nonsense by offering her something better: himself. Alas, Belle isn't interested, despite the fact that his biceps have biceps.

The story proper begins when Maurice, en route to an inventors' contest, loses his way in the woods. He soon finds himself a prisoner in the palace of the Beast (Owen Smith). The Beast is in fact a prince, transformed years before as punishment for his lack of charity. Transformed too are his servants (candlestick, bureau, teapot, napkins), who hold out hope that their master might break the spell by overcoming his worst tendencies and falling in love. The odds aren't looking good, though.

Real magic has been lavished on the palace, including the magic of stagecraft. Rooms and scenes transition as if effortlessly. The servants are terrific, and Lumiere (Trevor Lee Straub) is best among them. He captures the man/candlestick's charm, his dedication to his duties and the sheer delight he takes in having someone to serve. Lumiere is the point man for "Be Our Guest," the grandest song in the show (although, strangely, not the one that closes out the first act. That honor goes to "If I Can't Love Her," a much lesser piece). After it ended, my ten-year-old daughter said, "All that for dinner?" Clearly, she's never been to France.

Things heat up in the second act, as Belle finds herself caring for newly-thawed Beast. MacKay is utterly believable. Smith, compellingly feral early on, doesn't quite manage to capture his character's nobility. He's less wounded prince than crazed rock star. Soon, circumstances conspire to pull them apart. Will their romance, newly kindled, gutter?

Most audience members will already know the answer to that question. The fact that they'll care anyway is a testament to the lasting power of what lyricist Howard Ashman and others created and to how well Civic Theatre made it all come alive again.

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