Mike Wemer

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Ritz Theatre Company

The magic of Disney transformed South Jersey into a mystical wonderland; well, more so than usual. Twenty-first century exurbia altered into the form of a rustic medieval village. A mysterious enchanted castle settled on the outskirts. The Ritz Theatre served as the source of this enchantment. The building became even more bewitching this July 28th. I experienced a supernatural evening in the form of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast directed by Craig Hutchinson.

In the prologue voiceover, Rick Williams delivered a stellar reading of the backstory for this “tale as old as time.” In it, a handsome prince discovered the perils of vanity in the most unpleasant way possible. He turned a homely beggar woman away from his door because of her appearance. Spoiler alert for those who’ve never had contact with the outside world: a witch bore the guise of the old woman. She cursed the good-looking young man, making him into a hideous beast. In the process, his servants experienced their own metamorphoses. They started changing into various items in the household.

Only one thing could end the curse. Spoiler alert for those surprised by the first spoiler alert: it’s the love of a good woman. The beast must find a young lady who can look past his horrifying appearance. But this quest contained an added challenge. The Beast must complete it before all the petals fell off the rose the witch gave him. At the story’s beginning, the rose was almost bare.

The action then turned to the bookish Belle (Annabelle Garcia). Somewhat of an outcast due to her love of literature, she still drew the interest of the most desirable man in town, Gaston (Nicholas French). While spurning his affections, her father, Maurice, (played by Bruce A. Curless), became lost in the woods. In order to avoid a coven of wolves, he took shelter in the Beast’s castle. The latter didn’t take kindly to uninvited guests, so he imprisoned the father. In order to free him, Belle promised the Beast she would stay with him forever. Then as the rose withered, their relationship bloomed.

Annabelle Garcia interpreted her character’s role as “beauty” very broadly. I witnessed no paucity of pulchritude from this performer. Ms. Garcia showcased a beautiful voice, beautiful dance moves and beautiful acting ability. Belle proved quite a demanding role, and this thespian rose to the level it required.

Ms. Garcia turned Belle into the epitome of a Disney heroine. Her selection of voice brought to mind Judy Garland’s from The Wizard of Oz; only more mellifluous. Even when delivering lines, her voice contained a melodic quality to it. This performer treated the audience with impressive singing. Her delivery of “A Change in Me” drew on the character’s feelings and expressed them proficeintly.

Ms. Garcia also wowed theatregoers with her dancing ability. Her most memorable scene occurred when she took part in the fast, high-energy “Be Our Guest” routine along with the ensemble.

A true triple threat, Ms. Garcia also exhibited superb aptitude for non-verbal communication. Even when other action occurred on stage, she remained in character through her perfect use of facial expressions. The way she laughed in her scenes with Maurice (Bruce A. Curliss) showed the character’s genuine affection for her father. It came across as believable and sincere. Bravo.

Bryan M. Pitt put on one beast of a performance as the Beast. I liked the way he brought out the character’s inner turmoil through his vocals. He delivered “If I Can’t Love Her” in a dolorous tone that stirred me. One has to credit him for doing this so well without allowing a burdensome costume to distract him.

Mr. Pitt varied the monster’s emotions very well. Through his character interpretation he showed the Beast possessed much more depth and complexity than what appeared on the surface. When required, he played an angry, frightening creature speaking in a harsh tone that invoked terror. The reverb added to his voice in the first act enhanced this effect.

Like a true stage veteran, he portrayed the character’s change in a measured way that made it credible. Mr. Pitt brought out the Beast’s vulnerability when admitting to Belle he didn’t know how to read. He also got laughs when squealing as Belle bandaged his wounds.

I always enjoy the opportunity to hear Tami Gordon Brody sing. Her rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” didn’t disappoint. It provided the perfect background to Belle’s and the Beast’s solo dance.

This show featured elaborate costuming. To illustrate just how extravagant, it’s difficult to argue the Beast’s as the best. David M. Mooney (as Cogsworth) played a realistic appearing clock. Tami Gordon Brody (Mrs. Potts) took the stage as a tea-kettle. Achilles Inverso (as Luminaire) donned the attire of candelabra. Nicky Intrieri performed as a teacup. Brittany Marie (Babette) played a feather duster. Jane Ericksen wore a dresser most of the evening. The ensemble acted as various pieces of silverware. These players deserve immense respect for not allowing costumes that inhibited movement to affect their performances. That’s true professionalism.

In addition, the “normal” characters wore authentic appearing gowns from the 18th century. They made for quite a visual spectacle.

David M. Mooney and Achilles Inverso displayed outstanding comedic chemistry working together. Their respective costuming added to the humorous effect, but they didn’t allow themselves to become reliant on them for humor. As with Ms. Garcia, they selected the perfect voices to correspond with their characters. I enjoyed Mr. Mooney’s English accent and Mr. Inverso’s French intonation. The inflections enhanced the witty banter between the two.

Nicholas French (Gaston) and Matt Flocco (Lefou) performed well as a comedy team. In addition, I  enjoyed their singing together on the apotheosis of self-admiration the appropriately titled “Gaston.”

Nicholas French may have played a reprehensible character in the form of Gaston, but I still relished they way he performed. It’s quite a trial to play a lothario in an appropriate way to a Disney audience, but Mr. French did so. He teamed up with Ms. Garcia on the outstanding duet: “Me.”

I had one minor issue with the show. I know this is Disney, but dancing wolves? In the story’s context, they were supposed to be threatening creatures. Seeing them dance, made them less so; and Beauty and the Beast isn’t Cats. That’s not to diminish the work of the dancers. More thought out writing would’ve gotten the playwright’s point across better.

Choreographer Jessica Quindlen put together memorable routines. I’d credit dancers Casey Clark, Olivia West, Lindsey Krier, Nicky O’Neal, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Margot Adams, Matthew Janis, Madeline Kendall, Annie Raczko, Kahlil Wyatt, Mike Wemer, Brian Gensel and John Sayles for the technical ability to execute them.

I also enjoyed Taylor Brody in the role of the malevolent Monseiur D’Arque. Bruce A. Curless played the eccentric Maurice exceptionally well.

During intermission, the Ritz allowed theatregoers the opportunity to purchase illuminating roses. When the proper scene arose a series of roseate glows dotted the auditorium. Watching a dark theatre light up with red flowers added to the optical display.

Some “tales as old as time” never get old; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among them. A curse may have ignited the main story spark, but it blessed the audience with a truly enchanting evening. Unfortunately for theatre fans, the petals are falling off the rose while you’re reading this. The magical opportunity to see Beauty and the Beast ends this August 6th.

Theater Review – Rent at Bridge Players Theater Company

Johnathan Larson must’ve had a profound hatred for actors when he wrote Rent. This musical presented the most challenging material I’ve ever witnessed on a live stage. Watching it performed by a community theater group really impressed me. I enjoyed the stellar performances even more.

Rent featured an extraordinary array of musical styles. Tracks such as “One Song Glory” harkened back to standard Rock and Roll. “Tango: Maureen” was just that: a tango. “Seasons of Love” took me back to the age of Aquarius. The musical also had some numbers for more ‘traditional’ theater fans. I thought the titletrack probably the closest to a standard ‘show tune’ sound.

The vocal routines by this cast were mind blowing. Leilah Murphy (as Mimi Marquez) qualified for a Gold Medal in gymnastics with her performance. It’s hard to sing in front of a group of people. It’s harder to sing and dance in front of group of people. During her rendition of “Out Tonight” Ms. Murphy did these things, while swinging from a beam and then sliding down a pole. It impressed me even more that she pulled all this off without getting hurt.

Mike Wemer (as Tom Collins) also displayed some exceptional vocal skills. The reprise to “I’ll Cover You” showcased his vocal prowess the most. Mr. Wemer began the song as a baritone. A high note came in at the end that he nailed flawlessly. I should also point out that this number came up at the most somber moment of the play. Mr. Wemer sang while nearly crying. All I can say is, “Wow.”

Kiara Rodriguez (as Joanne Jefferson) gave Mariah Carey a run for her money as a singer. Several times during the evening Ms. Rodriguez hit notes close to dog whistle territory. As I told the lady sitting next to me, “She hit those notes better than I would have.”

The most challenging aspect of performing Rent involved the subject matter. It followed a group of bohemians through a year of their lives. Their struggles and heartbreaks served as the crux of the story. Most of the characters suffered from HIV or AIDS. It took a very special group of actors to animate this story in such an entertaining way. Kudos also to Amanda Frederick (as Maureen Johnson) for getting the audience involved with “Over the Moon”.

I also have to give credit to Jonathan Mosesku’s performance as Angel Schunard. (For those unfamiliar with the play, the latter character is a drag queen.) Any man who can run around a stage in high heels and not fall down certainly deserves respect. I struggle walking in flip-flops. I don’t know how the hell he pulled that off.

Matt Dotzman (as Mark Cohen), Mike Reisman (as Roger Davis), and Zack Treusch (as Benjamin Coffin III) turned in fine performances, as well.

I also credit director Chris Focarile for pulling the whole thing together. Gina Petti did an exceptional job as choreographer. (Ms. Petti also played a number of roles in the play.) Those two should qualify for a PMP for staging this production. With all the different characters and the host of intricate musical numbers, they did a phenomenal job.

Jonathan Larson may not have liked actors, but I liked the ones in the Bridge Players Theater Company. In addition, I always enjoy seeing Pulitzer Prize winning plays at community theater groups. This way my wallet doesn’t get ‘rent’.