I'd be happy to admit that, as a theater snob and purist, seeing the word "Disney" in an Oregon Shakespeare Festival season schedule causes me to reflexively cringe. But I'm also a realist; with Walt Disney Picture's 2017 movie incarnation of the vaunted musical romantic fantasy having raked in more than $1 billion in ticket sales so far, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is an obvious choice for OSF when it comes to filling seats — something for the kids, or perhaps for the novice theater-goer, the reluctant boyfriend, or the left-brained workaholic who might otherwise stay home. Disney is a draw. Tim Rice lyrics are a draw. "Be Our Guest" will surely get the sort of giddy applause that you'd be less likely to see, for example, at a staged reading of Chekhov. With the quality of work the festival has rolled out in 2017, it has certainly earned the right to do a big, silly musical.
So — while watching the Disneyfication of world-class stage actors like Jennie Greenberry (Belle), Jordan Barbour (Beast), Sara Bruner (LeFou) and James Ryen (Gaston) may leave some patrons feeling as though they have just seen Lee Strasberg in an Adam Sandler movie — let it be said that, for the kind of acting they are being asked to do, this cast is absolutely smashing. The scenes in Belle's village are fun and fast paced with decent choreography. Add in the Castle scenes, with fearsome wolves outside the walls and, inside, a coterie of human servants who are gradually being transformed into common household items, and you have a pretty entertaining show on your hands. It will cause the children in the audience to be swept up in the wonder of it all, as was evidenced by the 5-year-old who was sitting directly in front of me on this particular evening, eyes glued to the stage and bottom welded to the seat of her chair for the full duration of this two-and-a-half hour production.
Barbour is a pretty terrific Beast, with a potent physicality that keeps him fun to watch. As Belle, Greenberry holds true to the independent, brave character for which the role is famous. The domestic scenes between the two are as fraught with awkward misunderstandings as those that might be evidenced in any early courtship — their chemistry keeps things interesting.
As Gaston, it is Ryen who shines most brightly in this production. Perfectly cast and excellent in the role, Ryen plays Gaston as a pompous, misogynistic, self-aggrandizing, gym-culture broseph. Sporting an absurd pompadour and totally possessed of his own sexual and physical charisma, Ryen is the best thing in the show; when he's on stage, he fills the Allen Elizabethan Theatre to the brim with this robust performance.
As LeFou, the bumbling sidekick to Gaston, Sara Bruner is highly dexterous and perfectly pitched. Her performance is, as usual, a reliable container for many.
At the Beast's Castle, Cogworth (Daniel T. Parker) and Lumiere (David Kelly) are great as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome Stan and Ollie, keeping each other from slipping into madness as each gradually transforms from man to mantelpiece decoration while racing to position Belle as the Beast's savior. As Mrs. Potts, Kate Mulligan turns in an amusingly maternal housekeeper (one small bone: no self-respecting English maid would ever offer a "warm cup of tea" — It's scalding hot or nothing). As Babette, Robin Goodrin Nordli is in a complicated relationship with Kelly's flaming candle, and since she's busy turning into a feather duster, things get pretty heated. As Madam de la Grande Bouche (a former opera diva since turned into a gilded credenza) Britney Simpson is appropriately diva-ish. This role gives Ms. Simpson an opportunity to show off her obvious classical vocal training, and OSF should be using her more often in such a capacity.
As Belle's father, Maurice, Michael J. Hume turns in a touching performance, made all the more poignant in his scenes with Belle in that opening night happened to fall on Father's Day. Naiya Gardiner, in her OSF debut as Chip, seemed very much at home on stage, turning in a polished performance for so young an actor.
Overall, "Beauty and the Beast" is a familiar staple of mainstream, big-budget entertainment, a show that is elevated by the professionalism of the actors at OSF. It's worth going if you're taking young ones, are introducing a wary friend to live theater, or if you have a particularly strong penchant for a pop culture fix. If you're more interested in the grittier aspects of the company's character — those aspects that have brought forth multiple Tony nominations and the sort of recognition that is currently pushing OSF to fulfill its destiny as an international theater destination — then Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" may be the one show to leave off of your itinerary for the 2017 season.
Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" plays through Oct. 15 at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.