After two years of limping along during the pandemic, The 5th Ave Theatre kicked open its doors last Friday night with a joyful and raucous performance of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, the last gift lyricist Howard Ashman bestowed upon the world before a different virus took him.
For the theater's first in-person show in a while, director Jay Woods and casting director Dedra D. Woods chose Black actors or people of color to play the leads and primary supporting roles, throwing them against the white background of a Medieval-looking French town.
Aside from putting money in the pockets of actors from communities hit hardest by pretty much everything for the last couple/400 years, the choice licensed some premium choreography — a strong step interlude enlivened "Gaston," and an all-to-brief moment of voguing during "Be Our Guest" drew screams from the crowd. The diverse cast also added depth to moments that announce the musical's moral concerns about beauty, beastliness, and power imbalances — to the extent that the musical really engages with those themes in any kind of coherent way.
(I mean, what is the lesson of Beauty and the Beast after all? Don't judge a book by its cover? Only love can redeem the damned? You can fix an aggressive man but not a vain one? If you press too hard, it just feels like the whole thing crumbles. And as long as we're asking the big questions: Does anyone out there know why the witch's spell also cursed the Beast's servants, tying their fates together in a nightmare world where the lives of workers depend on the lovability of their crotchedy boss? Please address my ignorance in the comments.)
At any rate, the show was fun as hell, all of the leads (and most of the supporting players) turned in great performances, and the 5th's new firm and supportive seats were a welcome addition to the theatergoing experience, especially for this big ol' 2.5 hour production.
Porscha Shaw shined brightly as Belle, projecting charm and warmth and beauty in every scene. She hit her high notes with ease, but she was particularly expressive in her lower registers, which were on full-display in "Change in Me." I counted myself among those in the audience who audibly gasped when she descended the grand staircase in that golden explosion of a gown pictured above.
Riley Brack fully embodied the Beast. He slinked around stage like a wolf, and his voice carried a palpable anguish that resounded throughout the theater with every word he spoke or sung. He seemed 100-feet tall and yet utterly fragile, so that when Belle's love ultimately transformed him back into a prince, I let out a sigh of actual relief rather than one of a general malaise in the face of the storybook happy ending.
Jaysen Wright turned in an equally stellar performance as the Beast's foil, Gaston. His voice was as big as his biceps, he danced well, and he nailed every joke.
The two other actors who appeared to be having as much fun with their roles as Wright were John David Scott and Anne Allgood. Scott played Gaston's man, LeFou, with a bubbling, red-faced intensity. Every comedic decision he made was the right one, and I got excited every time he took the stage. Ditto Allgood, who smashed the role of Madame de la Grande Bouche, the washed-up diva who was magically transformed into a wardrobe.
As for the other stand-out enchanted objects: Jason Weitkamp played a tightly wound, perfectly persnickety Cogsworth while Nicholas Japaul Bernard lit up the stage as Lumière. Bernard was a thrill to watch, though his comically thick French accent smeared the lines beyond comprehension a couple times. No biggy, though. That said, for me, the rug nearly ran away with the whole show:
It's hard to describe why the rug was so funny. The head-hole cut directly into the bright magenta fabric was funny. The weird shapes the actor made when they pressed their hands and feet into the rug's corners and then danced around the stage like an electrified flying squirrel were funny. It was all funny. The actor on opening night, Alyza DelPan-Monley, deserves a bonus.