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Saturday, March 23, 2024

Enchantment Galore in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at Toby’s


Rachel Cahooon as Belle and Justin Calhoun as the Beast
It’s great that Toby’s Dinner Theatre has brought back Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at a time when we can all use a heartwarming fairy tale to relieve some stress. It’s also notable that Toby’s maintains a cache of veteran actors that can enchant us again.

If memory serves me, several performers—Jeffrey Shankle, David James, Lynn Sharp-Spears, Robert Biederman 125 as well as most of the technical crew—reprise their roles from Toby’s 2017 production. A lot has happened since that time. For example, we never heard of the word “covid.” But miraculously, these actors still remember their lines!

Yes, there are new cast members that add freshness and energy to the 2024 version of this classic musical. However, a theatrical star has emerged in the person of Rachel Cahoon who delivers a Broadway-worthy performance in the role of Belle (the beauty part of the title). There will be more about her later in the review.

Directed and choreographed by Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, who also helmed the 2017 iteration, the production clearly reflects his meticulous attention to details as well as his keen awareness of the in-the-round stage that is a hallmark of Toby’s.  It is an enchanting spectacle of superb music performed by a talented company demonstrating strong vocals and dazzling, high tempo dancing.

"...a theatrical star has emerged in the person of Rachel Cahoon who delivers a Broadway-worthy performance in the role of Belle."

Combine that with brilliant, extravagant period costumes designed by Janine Sunday; the imaginative set by David A. Hopkins, that add set pieces, props and dropdown fabric denoting the woods; Lynn Joslin’s effective lighting design; and the precise staging, Beauty and the Beast is far more beauty than beast.

Countless costume pieces are employed including colorful 18th century gowns, dresses with hoopskirts, as well as attire for wolves and the beast himself.  Prosthetics and other devices are used to outfit the enchanted objects—clock, tea pot, candelabra, etc.  There are great challenges in designing such costumes, but Ms. Sunday is clearly up to the task, which fortifies the aesthetics of the show.

The atmosphere representing the interior of a castle is amplified by Mr. Hopkins use of simulated oil paintings of previous kings on the walls around the theater and well-placed hanging lamps above and around the stage. Ms. Joslin makes good use of her vast lighting design experience as well as the appropriate use of fog effects to take us back to a time when princes inhabit castles while fierce wolves roam the woods nearby.

The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1994, was based on Oscar-nominated Disney’s 1991 animated feature film with the same name. It became the tenth longest ever running musical on Broadway.

Patrick Gover as Gaston

Beauty and the Beast featured 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 was written by Linda Woolverton.

Show-stopping production numbers that highlight the singing and dancing talents of the ensemble are audience pleasers to be sure.  Menken’s rich score is ably presented by Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra (Nathan Scavilla conducts on alternate performances).  Entertaining as that is, the fairy tale itself sweeps you away on an emotional and romantic journey.  

The story centers on a spoiled prince (Justin Calhoun) who had been transformed by an enchantress (Alexis Krey-Bedore) into a boorish, hot-tempered, unsightly creature because of an act of unkindness. That horrendous condition can only end, and the prince could return to his human form, if he can find love before petals fall off from an eternal rose given by the enchantress.  

The mutual love would come from a beautiful book-loving woman Belle (played by the aforementioned Rachel Cahoon) from a provincial town who enters the castle in search of her father Maurice (Robert Biederman) who had previously stumbled into said castle having lost his way. The story is tender and endearing, and the relationship between Belle and the Beast has the audience rooting hard for both. 

Also pushing hard for the couple to fall in love are various servants in the prince’s castle who were converted into enchanted household objects when the spell was cast on the prince.  They, too, have a stake in the spell being removed so they can return to being humans.

Simultaneously, the town’s egomaniacal, bicep-flexing, bully, Gaston (Patrick Gover), rejected by Belle to be his wife, strives to make her change her mind.

As Belle, lovely Ms. Cahoon, making her Toby’s debut in stunning fashion, 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. Cahoon displays her exquisite soprano voice in such the ballads “Belle,” “Home” and “A Change in Me.”

Not only are her vocals stellar, Ms. Cahoon brandishes her polished acting skills. Regardless of whom she interacts with, there is great chemistry. Whether it is with Mr. Biederman, Mr. Gover or Mr. Calhoun, those scenes hit the mark largely because of the chemistry displayed between the actors.

For his part, Mr. Calhoun as the Prince/Beast is also excellent.  He is called upon to be mean, gruff and demanding. Yet, he competently softens his demeanor as his love for Belle grows, demonstrating his acting gifts.  Mr. Calhoun’s pleasant baritone is evident in the emotional “How Long Must This Go On?” and the tender, beautifully delivered “If I Can’t Love Her.”

Patrick Gover romps through his role as the superior, perfect-looking God’s gift to women, Gaston.  His character, though an antagonist, provides comic relief early on because of his over-the-top self-centeredness and swagger with the amusing help from Lefou, Gaston’s goofy, ever-fawning sycophant, played with flair by Jeffrey Shankle. But his character darkens towards the end as he sets out to destroy the Beast. Mr. Gover showcases his commanding baritone in “Me,” “Gaston” and “The Mob Song”.

Rachel Cahoon, Adam Grabau and enchanted objects in "Be Our Guest"

As mentioned earlier, because of the spell, the Prince’s-then Beast’s staff had been turned into enchanted objects. One of those was a teapot, Mrs. Potts, played by Lynn Sharp-Spears. She executes the role with humor and warmth, and her rendition of the title song in the second act is performed tenderly. 

One of the characters in this group is Cogsworth (David James), the head of the castle and who was converted into a mantle clock. With his adroit comedic timing and delivery, multiple Helen Hayes Award winner Mr. James is an ongoing laugh machine.

Others in the talented cast include Babette, the enchanted feather duster (Patricia “Pep” Targette); the suave Lumiere, the maitre d’ of the castle and enchanted candelabra (Adam Grabeau); former opera diva Madame de la Grande Bouche; the enchanted wardrobe (MaryKate Brouillet); and young Chip (Elijah Doxtater who alternates with Julia Ballenger and Dylan Iwanczuk), the teacup and son of Mrs. Potts.  All perform brilliantly in their mostly comic roles as foils to the Beast.

Also, turning in a solid performance is the always reliable veteran Robert John Biedermann as Maurice, Belle’s inventor-father thought to be crazy by Gaston and the townsfolk.

Production numbers, such as “Gaston,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Human Again” involving the ensemble are extraordinary in their execution of Mr. Minnick’s choreography.  Precise throughout, these numbers are simply sensational especially when the enchanted objects have to navigate the floor with oversized, bulky costumes. As a nod to the times, waltzes are occasionally featured.

Rounding out the energetic, talented ensemble are Brandon Bedore, Carter Crosby, Lydia Gifford, Angelo Harrington II, Sarah Joyce, Nicky Kaider (see him as Frankie Valli in Toby’s upcoming Jersey Boys), Amanda Kaplan-Landstrom, Alexis Krey-Bedore and Anwar Thomas.

With the talent overflowing and the technical crew’s skill, Toby’s presentation of Beauty and the Best excels in all facets from direction to staging to performances.

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.

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through June 16, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311or visiting here.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The Menu for the fabulous buffet is shown here.

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The cast of Beauty and the Beast

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