by Ann M. Colford & r & Imagine a musical with the message that true beauty is found within, that literature can calm the fiercest beast and turn him into a gentleman, and that learning to offer and receive love is what makes us fully human. Now imagine that the heroine is an independent and strong-willed young woman with a clear sense of who she is and what she wants from life. Imagine further that she rejects the egocentric muscle-bound hunk seeking her attention in favor of someone whose best qualities take time to be revealed. Throw in full production numbers, great voices, silly puns and heart-wrenching despair, and you'll have an idea what's in store at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater's production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, on stage through Aug. 20.

Given the release of the Disney animated film in 1991 -- not to mention the centuries-old fairy tale -- lots of people know the basic story, but here's a quick review. A handsome but arrogant prince has been turned into a fearsome and grotesque Beast (played by Rob Estes) after displaying his lack of compassion. The spell can be broken only when he learns to love another -- and when that love is returned. If he does not succeed before the petals drop from an enchanted rose, then he is doomed to live the rest of his life as the Beast. Nearby, Belle (Krista Kubicek) is the beautiful daughter of the village inventor, Maurice (Dennis Craig); most villagers think she's weird because she loves books. Of course, they think her dad's a bit on the barmy side as well, with his crazy contraptions and his wacky wardrobe. Maurice wanders off in the forest where he seeks refuge from ravenous wolves and lands at the door of the spellbound castle. Soon he's held captive by the Beast. Belle comes to his rescue, offering herself to the Beast in exchange for her father's freedom.

In the Beast's bewitched castle, she meets his servants, who now live as enchanted furnishings: Cogsworth the clock (Patrick Treadway), Lumiere the lamp (Jason Snow), and the charming Mrs. Potts (Julie Powell, in the Angela Lansbury role from the film), who's a sprightly teapot, among others. As innocent victims of the spell, these members of the household see Belle as their only hope to bring love to the Beast and thus break the spell. Here, the story could bog down and become maudlin, but there's just the right balance between emotional tension and silly stuff to keep the story moving forward.

And the silly stuff is fun. The dancing and singing objects make a great visual spectacle and will keep younger kids enthralled; the sight gags and puns -- like Cogsworth, the clock, complaining about being "wound up" -- appeal to a different kind of humor. And there's subtle humor, too, as when Mrs. Potts comes tripping up the stairs humming, "I'm A Little Teapot" to herself.

Another source of fun is Gaston (Troy Wageman), Belle's puffed-up suitor from the village, and his sidekick, Lefou (Peter Riopelle). We learn all we need to know about Gaston from his marriage proposal song, entitled simply, "Me." (I've met a few guys like that.)

In contrast to the silliness, there are also moments of deep emotion. Act One ends on such a note with the Beast's soliloquy, "If I Can't Love Her." He despairs of ever being able to love enough to break the spell, concluding with the haunting lines, "If I can't love her / Let the world be done with me."

As Belle, Krista Kubicek has the strong voice and self-assured presence required for the role. Even when Belle is sitting in the Beast's castle, frightened and missing her home, Kubicek doesn't go over the edge into despair; she maintains a strong sense of self and a curiosity about the place and its owner. As the Beast, Rob Estes can't rely on facial expressions; instead, he conveys complex emotions -- haughty rage, uncertainty, despair and a shy, blossoming tenderness -- with his voice and body language. Troy Wageman delivers the role of Gaston with a combination of cluelessness and totally self-centered bravado; with his oversized sideburns and pompadour, he looks like he could break into an Elvis impersonation at the drop of a hat.

Among the enchanted furnishings, Jason Snow is strong as Lumiere, the love-struck floor lamp, while Patrick Treadway ticks along smoothly (sorry, I just couldn't stop myself) as Cogsworth, the English butler turned grandfather clock. Julie Powell as Mrs. Potts brings new life to the slightly schmaltzy title song with her warm, rich vocals.

None of the performers betrayed any sign of opening-night jitters. The big production numbers snapped with precision, especially the pull-out-all-the-stops hit, "Be Our Guest," which echoes great Hollywood and Broadway dance scenes from Busby Berkeley to A Chorus Line. (And Berkeley never choreographed for a dancing whisk.)

The set worked seamlessly as well and contributed to the mysterious and magical quality of the production, as did the Alan Menken score. The only quibble I had Saturday night was with the sound reproduction. The sound quality has improved since last year, particularly with the women's voices, but there were more than a few annoying pops and cracks as the actors moved. During the two scenes with Gaston and his buddies, the vocals sounded muddy, taking away from the sharp wit of these quick patter songs. Still, these are minor technical issues and didn't take away from the overall experience of the show.

So be their guest and enjoy a satisfying feast of music and magic. It's great fun. Don't believe me? Ask the dishes!

Art, Nature and the Voice of the River @ People's Park

Sun., June 13, 11 a.m.
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