In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

The Beast overwhelms the Beauty in a chaotic production at Skylight Music Theatre (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Gigantic puppet beast creates havoc in Skylight's "Beauty and the Beast"

It's an old saying that applies in any number of situations: "Just because you can doesn't mean you should."

That's the phrase that is very appropriate to the production of "Beauty and the Beast" that opened a limited run Friday night at Skylight Music Theatre.

The focus of the show, from the marketing to the show itself, has been a marvelously constructed eight-foot tall puppet that is Azor (sung by Chaz'men Williams-Ali) , the beast from the title.

The puppet, designed by James Ortiz, is truly spectacular. It was operated by four people and has articulated construction that allows for movement of everything from lips to toes and everything in between.

Ortiz is a very successful artist. He's won an Obie Award for his play "The Woodsman," which also indulged his self-confessed "major passion" for puppetry. He's been very successful, and for this production, he directed the show, designed the scenes, designed the puppets and adapted the script with music director Shari Rhoads.

The problem with all this passion and skill with the world of puppets is that, when it is allowed to soar unchecked, it is likely to overwhelm everything else that is taking place on the stage. That, unfortunately, is the case here.

The stage at the Cabot Theatre is a small one, and with an elaborate set, huge costumes, lots of people, curious choreography and this giant monster in the middle of it all, the entire thing felt awfully cramped.

As Ortiz points out in his director's notes, part of the scholarly contemplation of this two-century old opera is that it is a "comedie-ballet melee." The word melee refers to a "noisy, messy, riotous fight or brawl." As Ortiz said, "let's get this brawl started."

The first line the audience hears in this opera comes from Sander (Eric McKeever), the father of Zemire (Gillian Hollis), the Beauty of the title.

"What a strange adventure," he says. That portends exactly what happens on the stage over the next two and a half hours. This is a very strange production of a story as familiar as a member of your family.

There is the beast, and he is in love with the beauty. He trades assured comfort with the father of the beauty in order to bring her into his life. She is fearful and then, as we all know, she melts before his goodness, and her love heals him from being the monster that we have all come to know and love.

To be fair here, the audience seemed to love the big puppet. They gasped when he first appeared and chuckled at his movements, such as when he held a rose in his teeth (or fangs, if you prefer) or when he sat down on the floor.

But it was almost as if the opera existed to serve the magic of technology that built this puppet, as well as puppets that portrayed a dog and the wind. This show reminded me of "War Horse," the Broadway hit that had giant puppets as horses. It played a week in Milwaukee and was another example of doing something because you can. The story of the production left me cold. Technology should serve the story, not the other way around.

The overwhelming distraction of Azor in this production was enough so that it was difficult to grasp the story being told.

Adding to the problem was the fact that the singing was truly without distinction, with the exception of two tenors, Williams-Ali and Nicholas Nestorak, who played the aide to Sander. Williams-Ali sang and spoke his role clad in a monk-like robe from various parts of the set as the puppet dominated the stage. It was a clever staging device, but was a disservice to Williams-Ali's expressive voice.

Once the monster died and Azor was clad in royal clothes, the character truly came to life (pun intended). It was a clear piece of evidence that this production would have been better served without a puppet and by putting Williams-Ali in a great costume.

One of the most difficult tasks in the world of opera singers is the maturation of voices that can not just hit the notes, but can deliver the lyrics with clarity and emotion. That immaturity was clear in the voices of the three women, Hollis and her two sisters. In the early going, it was difficult to understand what they were singing about although Hollis stepped up in the second act.

The show opened on the same day that the Disney movie "Beauty and the Beast" opened nationwide starring Emma Watson and British actor Dan Stevens as the beast. His CG-heavy look is striking, but he is clearly a beast with a human heart.

The production at Skylight features a beast with no heart, just mechanical pieces that are designed to startle, but not develop a story that commands attention.

"Beauty and the Beast" runs through March 26 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.


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