Matt Montgomery as Tony and Jennifer Gillis as Maria have a great chemistry and energy on stage. (photo by Tim Matheson)
Love conquers all. Then again, sometimes, it just isn’t enough. Theatre Under the Stars explores the power – and limits – of love in its two productions this year: Beauty and the Beast and West Side Story.
Love’s transformative power plays front and centre in Beauty and the Beast. The story begins at a prince’s castle, where he refuses to help a beggar. It turns out the woman is a sorceress and she puts a curse on the household, turning him into a beast and all the house staff into objects. It’s a slow-acting spell though, so everyone is in a state of transition, which will be complete when the last petal of a rose falls – unless the prince-cum-beast can fall in love and be loved in return.
Meanwhile, Belle lives in a village with her inventor father – the townspeople think he’s crazy and she’s odd, as she rarely has her nose out of a book. But she is beautiful, as her name suggests, and the most-sought-after man in the village, the handsome, muscle-bound and narcissistic hunter Gaston, is smitten. He is determined to have Belle for his wife.
In the TUTS production, Jaime Piercy as Belle is the strongest singer by far, though the overall best actor in the show is, hands down – combining acting, singing and dancing – Victor Hunter as Lumière, the slender and bendy maître d’ who is transforming into a candelabra; his comedy partner, Steven Greenfield as Cogsworth, the butler becoming a clock, also stands out.
Dane Szohner as Gaston is hilarious and his singing is energetic and enthusiastic, if not always on key, and Sheryl Anne Wheaton as Mrs. Potts – the cook becoming a teapot – is delightful, her rendition of the title song perfect. Jewish community member Bodhi Cutler does a fine job as Mrs. Potts’ young son, who spends most of the night wheeled around in a tea trolley with only his face seen in the body of the teacup into which his character is transforming. Fellow Jewish community member Julian Lokash shows his dancing skills in a few numbers, including as an unidentifiable household object in “Be Our Guest,” which is wonderfully performed by numerous cast members – and the orchestra, which was great throughout, led by musical director Wendy Bross Stuart, another Jewish community member involved in the production.
While some of the household items are hard to discern – including one talented cart-wheeling rug (?) – and the angry wolves that beset people in the forest look more like black cats, in general, the costumes by Chris Sinosich are spot on, as per the Disney movie on which the musical is based. As Belle comes to dinner in one of the final scenes, adorned in her signature gold ball gown, one young audience member couldn’t contain her excitement, happily exclaiming, “She’s wearing the Belle gown!”
By that point in the opening night show, the Beast, played by Peter Monaghan, had settled into his role. In the first half, with only limited lines, it was hard to tell what Monaghan was trying to do with his character, his grunts and hunched-over movements not scary or funny. In the second half, however, he found his feet and his attempts to woo Belle – with the very amusing help of Lumière and Cogsworth – were well done.
Most of the princesses in the audience – several girls dressed up for the show – enjoyed the over-the-top acting, as did the adults, but there were a couple of frightening moments. At the beginning, Gaston is hunting and a gunshot goes off, which put at least one little girl into tears momentarily. And there was a lot of quiet in the audience much later, when Belle’s father is almost hauled off to an insane asylum by a jilted Gaston. To stop that from happening, Belle shows the crowd the Beast through a magic mirror to prove that her father really had seen a “monster” and isn’t crazy. This sets the mob, led by Gaston – who is now also jealous because he realizes that Belle loves the Beast – to the castle and the ultimate fight between the two men, which leads to a dire end for Gaston and near-death for the Beast. There were audible gasps when the Beast becomes human again, as do all his servants.
There is no such happy ending in West Side Story, of course. On opening night, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of gang rivalries turned deadly was intensely and movingly acted. The reality – as much as can exist in a musical – was increased by having some Spanish-speaking actors who get to reel off several lines in Spanish and, with some exceptions (such as Jewish community member Kat Palmer as Consuelo), having non-white actors playing the Puerto Rican Sharks and their entourage, while the Jets and their friends, as well as the police, are played by seemingly white actors. Normally, color doesn’t matter in casting, but the whole point of this musical is that fear and racism can be fatal, and the visual clues are helpful in sending this message home.
While the acting in this production is top-notch, the only performer who is a triple threat – singing, dancing and acting very well – is Daniel James White as Riff, the leader of the Jets. The Sharks’ leader, Bernardo, played by Alen Dominguez, doesn’t get much chance to sing, but handles himself well in the other two departments.
The doomed romantic duo, former Jets leader Tony (Matt Montgomery) and Bernando’s sister Maria (Jennifer Gillis), have a great chemistry and energy on stage, and they really do seem head over heels in love – and then completely lost and distraught when the rumble between the gangs goes lethally wrong. Montgomery has a lovely tenor voice but some of his notes/words are lost, while Gillis has some beautiful moments – Maria is a hard, high part to sing, and Gillis makes a valiant effort.
On the acting front, Alexandra Lainfiesta, who plays Bernando’s girlfriend and Maria’s confidante, is fabulous and almost steals the show. She plays a range of emotions convincingly, from the genuine joy and mischievousness she has in the song “America” to the defiance and anger she has in the upsetting and disturbing “The Taunting.” (Parental advisory: in this pivotal scene, the Jets’ sexual assault of Anita is more than implied.)
As much as there is heartbreak and horror in West Side Story, there is humor and hope. While cheesily done, this production has a young actress representing hope and her role at the end will choke people up a bit, as will the solo reprise by Daren Dyhengco of the song “Somewhere” for the appropriately subdued finale.
Among the highlights of this production, directed almost perfectly by Sarah Rodgers – the only scene that drags is the one in which Tony and Maria declare their intention to marry – is the choreography by Jewish community member Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Off-kilter movements, unique body angles, more use of the hands and shoulders than usual, judicious use of slow-motion (in the scene where Tony and Maria first meet) and other Friedenbergesque touches inject life into the musical, which is heavily dance-based.
Beauty and the Beast and West Side Story run until Aug. 20 on alternate evenings at Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl. For tickets, visit tuts.ca or call 1-877-840-0457.