Children of all ages love a good fairy tale, never more so than when it is set to music and receives the magic Disney touch.
Add to that fairly faultless direction and choreography by artistic director Scott Michaels and you have the current Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.”
Based on the 1991 animated Disney film with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and a stage book by Linda Woolverton, it continues to be — after “The Lion King,” — the most popular in the Disney cartoon-to-live action repertoire.
And the most widely toured.
And the most frequently done in schools and community theaters.
As always, the WW production faces the challenge of comparison at all levels and, again as always, comes out on top.
It goes without saying that conductor Thomas N. Sterling’s 11-piece orchestra makes the entire score — from overture/prologue to finale— worthy of listening to on its own.
Add to that another area in which Michaels & Co. seem to excel — character-perfect casting.
Even if you have seen this musical many times (and many in the near-capacity opening night audience obviously had), you will find layers of emotion underneath the excellent singing and dancing.
In the title roles are Elaine Cotter as Belle and Joey Birchler as The Beast. Living in separate worlds, they nonetheless share the stigma of being “oddballs” in less than understanding communities. She deals with it by living in other worlds through books; he takes his frustration out on his equally frustrated underlings.
Cotter, who last season played Jo in the WW production of “Little Women,” again creates a determined young woman who stands against adversity and beside her slightly-wacky inventor dad Maurice (Andy Robinson). She has a strong, clear soprano which lyrically expresses her gradual change in feelings towards her captor.
In his WW debut, Birchler has the difficult task of being loudly intimidating on the outside and quietly frightened on the inside, with a lion-like crouch and a roaring façade masking his increasing fear of remaining a beast forever. He expresses this in the Act 1 finale “If I Can’t Love Her,” a demanding solo which follows the ensemble’s show-stopping “Be Our Guest.” a daunting juxtaposition which Birchler handles with impressive power and obvious empathy.
The comic relief here is in many excellent hands. First on the scene are Gaston (Charlie Patterson) and his happily battered sidekick LeFou (Barrett Riggins). If Patterson has fewer bulging biceps than his animated persona, he makes up for it with a smug swagger and a baritone that can shake the rafters (or antlers) when he extols his many exaggerated attributes (“Gaston”).
Riggins has the unenviable task of being his human punching bag, with frequent hits timed to a clapstick and a super-flexible body that turns each hit into a pratfall and earns extended laughter.
In the castle of The Beast is the heart of the familiar show: the enchanted staff gradually becoming The furniture/utensils/etc. With the aid of Stephen R. Hollenback’s equally enchanted costume designs, they are universally audience favorites.
Lumiere (Keaton Eckhoff), the French candelabra, formerly a footman, squabbles with Cogsworth (Scott Fuss), a fussy grandfather clock nee butler, and romances Babette (Lexi Carter), a French maid-turning-feather duster. The diva of the group is Madame De La Grande Bouche (Kira Lace Hawkins), a chiffonier who dreams of better days in grand opera.
The voice of reason belongs to Mrs. Potts (Lottie Prenevost), the housekeeper becoming a teapot, whose son Chip (Parker Irwin) is the prize cup on her tea cart. She delivers the show’s title song as Beauty and her Beast enjoy a break-through waltz.
Throughout, the talented ensemble becomes villagers, wolves, giggling girls, an angry mob, enchanted objects and whatever else is required (special kudos to the silent winged gargoyles flanking the Beast’s chair) , singing and dancing and moving set pieces all without missing a beat!
The downside to this is the lack of tickets (if any) for the remaining performances. The upside is that this year’s WW company is one of the best and five season shows plus the encore remain in which to check out this talent.
“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” plays through June 11 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. Show times vary. For information and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.waonwheeltheatre.com