SAN DIEGO — Everybody's a critic, but you don't know opinionated until you've been to a show with my 6-year-old.
During opening night of the touring "Beauty and the Beast," making its only 1997 California stop through July 13 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, Sam kept urging me to clap louder, whispering insistently after a particularly mesmerizing special effect, "This is good. This is very good. Write that down!"
Adult critics have not been so kind to the show; it debases the utterly charming 1991 film with theme-park excess, they have said.
But kids love theme-park attractions. And adults do too, or there would be no explaining the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
In any case, the razzle-dazzle kept Sam and the other children--some as young as 3--Velcroed to their seats for 2 1/2 hours, awake and smiling and eager to buy souvenirs to remember their magical time with the enchanted beast who must learn to love and be loved--quickly!--if he is to become a handsome prince again.
There are pleasures for the adults as well, in the expanded score, particularly "Human Again," the song by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman that was omitted from the movie version, and the poignant "Home" by Menken and Tim Rice, who was tapped to fatten up the score with a half dozen numbers--some pedestrian, some inspired. Linda Woolverton's book clarifies the torment of the Beast and deepens some dramatic tension, as the household help becomes increasingly lifeless as the spell goes on.
And there are moving performances by Orange County's Kim Huber as Belle and Fred Inkley as the Beast. Huber, who grew up in Lakewood, attended UC Irvine and starred in many local civic light opera productions, brings earnestness, spunk and a very sweet voice to the part of the woman whose tough love helps transform a spoiled brat into a Beast in love.
Inkley, too, moves from rage to humility with persuasive skill.
Tony Lawson's Gaston, Belle's brutish suitor with a pompadour as big as his ego, has a grand time with a very funny new song, "Me," as in "All roads lead to me," "The best things in life are me."
Between lines, Patrick Page's Lumiere, the witty human candelabrum, keeps the laughs going with sideways looks and a seductive swish of the hips. Dan Sklar's Lefou, Gaston's sidekick, shows a Three Stooges' adeptness at being knocked about. Asher Book's little boy-turned-teacup Chip is sweetly appealing.
Stanley A. Meyer's sets, maligned in most reviews, drew no complaints from the younger crowd, particularly when the mysterious castle swiveled to reveal the turrets on which the Beast and Gaston battle. Not surprisingly, the "Be Our Guest" number was a showstopper.
But the show falters in creating a threat in the pivotal scenes when the wolves come out of the woods, terrorizing Belle's father, Maurice (Grant Cowan), and later Belle and the Beast. It's hard to make the leap from the literalness of the rest of the show to the implications of a few dancers prancing around in wolf costumes. Especially when the actors forget to act frightened.
The scares come from the special effects. And Sam, who loves being scared, is sold from the moment the enchantress throws the fireball that transforms the haughty prince into a beast. He is also taken enough with Lumiere--and his ability to burn people with lit-candle hands--to request a $15 replica of the same after the show.
Yes, kids, Disney's souvenir stands don't close after intermission, so you're in luck, even if your parents aren't.
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* "Beauty and the Beast," San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St. Tuesday-Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. (no 6:30 performance July 13); July 9, performance in sign language at 2 p.m. Ends July 13. $20-$60. (619) 236-6510 or (619) 220-TIXS. For groups of 20, (619) 231-8995, Ext. 103, or (800) 439-9000. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Laura Marie Crosta: Enchantress
Aldrin Gonzalez: Young Prince
Fred Inkley: Beast
Kim Huber: Belle
Dan Sklar: Lefou
Tony Lawson: Gaston
Catherine Fries, Heather Hoppus,
Susie Gritzmaker: Three Silly Girls
Grant Cowan: Maurice
Jeff Brooks: Cogsworth
Patrick Page: Lumiere
Mindy Paige Davis: Babette
Betsy Joslyn: Mrs. Potts
Abner Bookb: Chip
Sherry Anderson: Madame de la Grande Bouche
A San Diego Playgoers/A Nederlander Presentation of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Robert Jess Roth. Choreography: Matt West. Sets: Stanley A. Meyer. Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward. Lights: Natasha Katz. Sound: Jonathan Deans. Hair: David H. Lawrence. Illusions: Jim Steinmeyer/John Gaughan. Prosthetics: John Dods. Production stage manager: Dan W. Langhofer.