Disney's Beauty and the Beast

The 50th Zilker Summer Musical not only brings the animated musical to charming life, it deepens our appreciation of home

Arts Review

Disney's Beauty and the Beast

Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, through Aug. 9

Running time: 2 hr, 30 min

Home exerts a powerful pull in many great tales – can you imagine The Odyssey or The Wizard of Oz without its magnetic presence? – but you might not be quick to place Beauty and the Beast among them. Unless, that is, you know the version of the story developed for the stage by Disney after the success of its Oscar-nominated animated film. This expansion of the movie adds seven songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, one of which allows the story's beauty, Belle, to reflect on the idea of home. Once she's become a "guest" in the initially forbidding castle of the Beast, the "provincial life" that the book-loving girl disdained in the musical's opening number begins to take on a different, much more appealing look. And as Belle's feelings for her captor change, her appreciation for the home she left behind and her sense of what home can be also grow and deepen.

You may find a similar thing happening to you as you watch the Zilker Theatre Productions' staging of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Now, among Austin's cultural offerings, the Zilker Summer Musical holds a unique place, what with its long history and traditions of community involvement and generosity and informality all enshrined in a natural setting so dear to the hearts of its citizens, so any Summer Musical production will inspire more thoughts about this place where we live than your average indoor theatrical presentation. But when the show itself raises the subject of home and its value to us, well, it sparks a still greater consideration of our home through this locally mounted show. I mean, here is a musical that in its original stage incarnation had all the resources of a monolithic multinational corporation behind its spectacle and magic – and so you couldn't miss that, its name is right there in the title – and yet a community theatre company in the middle of Texas is producing it with a fraction of the Mouse House's millions and creating a version that is not only effective but charming. Here are local actors in roles indelibly stamped by the film performances who manage to evoke the originals while creating characters that are fresh and personal: Leslie Hethcox's Lumiere, taking delight in the concupiscent candlestick's oh-so-French flirtations, and Leslie Hollingsworth's coquettish feather duster Babette, matching him racy advance for racy advance; Scott Shipman's Cogsworth, the embodiment of fussy, fretting orderliness, growing funnier as he gets more tightly wound; Emily Bem's Madame de la Grande Bouche, operatic in her diva-ness; Blake Yelavich's Gaston, with his uncanny resemblance to the cartoon version, the character's self-satisfied vanity pouring off him like cheap cologne; and David Ponton's Lefou, an enthusiastic dim bulb bumbler of a sidekick. Here is the signature tune, the Oscar-winning title track, made surprisingly fresh by music director Michael McKelvey and Laura Powell, who softens it into a tender lullaby sung by Mrs. Potts to her son, Chip. Here is Dan Sullivan leavening the Beast's anger and anguish over his fate with an endearing comic insecurity regarding Belle. Here is Molly Wissinger's Belle, anchoring the show, beaming with intelligence and self-confidence and, when she expresses joy, whether for the romance in a novel or her romantic feelings for the Beast, radiant. Here are dozens of performers and musicians, who should be withering in the heat and humidity, giving their all and looking to be having the time of their lives. And their pleasure is infectious.

This, it leads you to think, is ours, whatever corporate stamp is on it. This has come to life at the hands of Austin artists, and they're giving it to the rest of the community with open hearts, free of charge, and here the community is to take their gift, all kinds of us – of every age, every race, every walk of life – all together, and we get to enjoy this gift on a hillside, ringed by trees and covered by stars, with food and drink and barking dogs and wailing infants. Scott Schroeder, Zilker Theatre Productions artistic director and director of this show, has made a memorable experience of the Zilker Summer Musical's 50th production. It is everything this decades-long tradition is about – and much that Austin is about as well. It says, "This is us, and this is what we do here." And it calls to mind that lasting lesson from every great tale about home: There's no place like it.

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Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Zilker Summer Musical, Zilker Theatre Productions, Scott Schroeder, Molly Wissinger, Dan Sullivan

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