|Evan Ruggiero as the Beast and Jade Jones as Belle|
Over the past few years, the Olney Theatre Center has been mounting productions that have transcended conventional theatrical boundaries in its goal to “drive social change, better humanity, inspire joy, and bring communities together.” Some of these efforts involve a particular theme of the production, some involve casting decisions, and others simply try out something new.
In staging Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 2021, the artistic team decided to go outside the box and cast as the lead a self-described queer, plus-sized Black woman, Jade Jones, who plays the role of Belle, “the most beautiful girl in town.”
Olney Theatre made a conscious effort to expand the stereotypical notions of beauty onstage in this casting choice, and it worked marvelously. In addition, Olney cast Evan Ruggiero, an acclaimed tap dancer and actor who lost a leg to cancer as a teenager, to play the role of the Beast. Demonstrating that his condition was not an impediment to his performance, Mr. Ruggiero also succeeded.
Unfortunately, the production had to be cut short in 2021 because of a surge in a Covid variant. Determined to build on the success of the original production, Olney Theatre has brought back Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to the Main Stage to run through the holidays with most of the cast including these superb leads returning.
Under the meticulous direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the snappy choreography of Josh Walden and the musical direction of Walter “Bobby” McCoy, the show excels on many fronts. Besides the talented leads and ensemble, the glorious set designed by Narelle Sissons, the extraordinary period costumes by Ivania Stack, the wigs designed by Ali Pohanka, the exceptional lighting by Colin L. Bills and the crisp sound by Matt Rowe, Beauty and the Beast is far more beauty than beast.
"[Jade Jones as Belle] is, in fact, perfect for the role."
Let me emphasize that Jade Jones as Belle is indeed beautiful. There is no concern, nor should there be that because they doesn’t look like Belle in the animated film or in previous iterations of the stage production, that they is not perfect for the role. Blessed with extraordinary vocal talent and acting abilities, any stereotypes about beauty vanish by their performance. Jade Jones is, in fact, perfect for the role.
Likewise, Mr. Ruggiero as the Beast, who continued to pursue dancing as a career even after the amputation, effectively moves about the stage peg leg and all and is an inspiration. He also possesses a muscular baritone voice that is a joy to hear.
The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1994 and was based on the 1991 animated feature film with the same name, became the 10th longest ever running musical on Broadway. It features the Oscar-winning score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, with additional songs composed by Alan Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice. The book is written by Linda Woolverton.
Show-stopping well-choreographed production numbers, such as “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” and “Human Again” thatshowcase the singing and dancing talents of the ensemble are audience pleasers to be sure. Yet, it is the fairy tale itself that sweeps you away on an emotional and romantic journey.
The story of a spoiled prince who had been transformed by an enchantress into a boorish, hot-tempered beast until he can find love and return to his human form before petals fall off from an eternal rose given by the enchantress and a beautiful woman Belle from a provincial town is tender and endearing. This relationship has the audience rooting hard for both. Also pushing enthusiastically for the couple to fall in love are various servants in the prince’s castle who were converted into household objects when the spell was cast on the prince. They, too, have a stake in the spell being removed.
Simultaneously, the town’s egomaniacal, narcissistic, preening bully, Gaston, rejected by Belle to be his wife, strives to make her change her mind.
Simply put, Jade Jones as Belle, shines throughout. Considered “weird” by the townsfolk because of her passion for books, Belle is strong-minded, and her eventual attraction to the beast that requires his becoming more gentlemanly for starters is tearful in its sweetness. Ms. Jones’ Broadway-caliber vocal prowess is evidenced in the ballads “Belle,” “Home” and “A Change in Me.”
For his part, Evan Ruggiero as the Beast is superb. He is called upon to be mean and demanding only to soften his demeanor as he becomes emotionally closer to Belle. His on-stage transformation back to being human displaying his handsome countenance at the show’s end with the ingenious use of lighting techniques is spectacular. Mr. Ruggiero’s powerful voice is evident in “How Long Must This Go On?” and “If I Can’t Love Her.” As mentioned earlier, he overcomes his physical challenges flawlessly.
Michael Burrell romps through his role as the superior, perfect-looking God’s gift to the world, Gaston. His character, though an antagonist, provides much of the comic relief throughout because of his over-the-top self-centeredness with the amusing and energetic help from John Sygar as Lefou, Gaston’s goofy, ever-fawning sidekick. Mr. Burrell’s commanding baritone in the heavily misogynistic “Me,” “Gaston” and “The Mob Song” is on display.
As noted earlier, the Beast’s staff had been turned into such objects as a teapot (Mrs. Potts played by Kelli Blackwell). Her rendition of the beautiful title song was performed sweetly.
Other characters in this group include Cogsworth, the clock (Dylan Arredondo); Babette, the feather duster (Haley Rebecca Ibberson); Lumiere, the candelabra (Bobby Smith); operatic Madame de la Grande Bouche, the wardrobe (Tracy Lynn Olivera); and Chip, the cup (Arianna Caldwell). All performed well in their mostly comic roles as foils to the Beast.
Also, turning in a solid performance is Sasha Olinick as Maurice, Belle’s inventor-father thought to be crazy by Gaston and the town folk.
The remaining members of the talented and energetic cast include Connor James Reilly, Selena Clyne-Galindo, Erica Leigh Hansen, Miya Hamashige, Megan Tatum, Jessica Bennett, Ariel Messeca, David Singleton, Tyler M. White, Michael Wood and Felicia Curry.
The set, which is comprised of a facsimile of a castle’s great hall with a staircase and balcony, is essentially the only scenery used. Movements of the stairs and dropdown lighting fixtures as well as lighting changes, moveable set pieces and props signal shifts in locale, such as the town and woods. Additionally, there is a clever round depiction of a rose that tracks the falling of the pedals on the rear wall.
Hundreds of costume pieces are employed including colorful 18th century gowns, dresses with hoopskirts, as well as attire for wolves and the beast himself. Creative devices are used to outfit the enchanted objects—clock, tea pot, candelabra, etc. There are great challenges in designing such costumes but Ivania Stack succeeds spectacularly, which fortifies the aesthetics of the show.
This production proves why the musical has received such worldwide popularity. No matter our age, we can all enjoy a good fairy tale with a happy ending to brighten our lives. Bring the kids, too; they’ll love it.
The desire on the part of the Olney Theatre to make the theatre experience inclusive, shatter stereotypes, and open doors to all talented people regardless of how they look, who they love, where they’re from, and the nature of their physical abilities is laudable and appreciated. They should be applauded along with the performers and creative and technical teams.
Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through January 1, 2023, at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting here.
Photos by Teresa Castracane Photography