Monsters and Megashows

Minnesotan theatergoers, we are told, are clamoring for epic. They want lavish sets, luscious costumes, fountains of sparks and banks of fog, chorus lines and dancing girls, and plenty of pomp all around. And while national touring productions have always played locally, marketing impresarios have devised a glossy and aggressive new package to bring out-of-city dollars back to downtown. Hyping the "Emerging Hennepin Theatre District," a press release assures us that "Minneapolis Mounted Patrol and the newly expanded downtown beat patrol will be present for performances to ensure a safe theater-going experience for patrons." In other words, a theater experience guaranteed to keep reality at bay before, during, and after the performance. The premiere of the national tour of Disney's dizzyingly ebullient Beauty and the Beast, now playing at the Orpheum, may be a harbinger of just what kind of theater-of-the-egregious will be "emerging" from behind a phalanx of police ponies.

Even as the Mouse-Ear Reich goosesteps round the globe, one must concede that Disney continues to churn out top-notch entertainment product. The briskly paced and eminently watchable Beauty and the Beast is no exception. The play gushes spectacle: Enormous and intricately painted backdrops, massive gargoyle pillars, slanted and enchanted cottages, a kinetic-sculpture car. Every other minute a flashpot is exploding or shooting out sparks, ejaculating production dollars like change from a slot machine. And then there are designer Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, which truly defy description. Cogsworth the clock has a built-in cabinet with a swinging pendulum. Lumiere produces flames from his candle-arms. Mrs. Potts, the teapot, emits steam.

The actors seem aware of the fact that any putz in the audience could deliver a passable performance in such fancy outfits; they wisely let the "custom craft vacuformed plastic" do the acting for them, while singing and dancing with the kind of hyper-competence that a talented ensemble can radiate while asleep. An essay in the program (unintentionally?) captures it best: "The costumes are the characters." Beauty and the Beast is high American Kabuki.

It's interesting to note that as a network television series, the story was translated into an affair between a wealthy society lawyer and a rag-clad leader of subterranean untouchables. A challenging premise, yes, but this is not the Disney way. We are to believe that the love between Belle and Beast coalesces around the fact that they're both "different": She reads too much, he has horns. Lacking plausible passion or any discernible meaning, the romance between the two is... well, it's a fairy tale, I guess. Which recalls an unsolicited capsule-review from the frighteningly tanned woman sitting to my left: "You've got to judge everything for what it is. The kids love this." As well they should.

Not only the Orpheum feels the pressure to go grandiose in order to fill the seats. Packing their own heavy corporate power in the form of an AT&T Foundation grant, Theatre de la Jeune Lune goes with another big gun in the epics business, Victor Hugo, in their original adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame: 1482. While the children's choir and 500-pipe organ gave me a good scare, and I am by constitution averse to plays with characters who go by names like "Poet," "Harlot," and "Gypsy," there is nothing egregious about this gorgeous play.

The production's most notable quality might be the ingenuity and economy of the set, which transforms the Jeune Lune's stage into a site of symbolic magic. After Esmerelda's wedding to Pierre the Poet (she is a Gypsy dancer, and the object of the diabolical Archdeacon's consuming lust), a grid of thin metal pipes--picture a checkerboard with empty 3'-by-3' squares--descends to head height, miniature model houses hanging from its pipes. Esmerelda steps onto a platform and is wheeled slowly across the stage, stepping lightly over the grid, floating above the rooftops of the slumbering city of Paris. It is a transcendent theatrical moment, evoking in visual terms what words would only crudely choke into coherence. An audience is lucky to come across one of these scenes a year. And yet, just a few minutes later, another slight piece of scenery falls from the sky, settling atop a shoulder-height platform. Quasimodo climbs atop it, and begins ringing the churchbells, riding the counterweighted ropes far above the stage. He soars, ecstatic, and the play goes with him.

Curiously, there is practically no involved dialogue nor prolonged interaction throughout the show. In many scenes the actors seem to be channeling their energy toward the audience, rather than each other (a natural function of playing in the round?), allowing its reflection to permeate the theater. I rather like this style, as, to my surprise, I do the abstract diction of the script (i.e.,"when one does evil one has to do the whole evil"). It seems that while imbuing this production with a healthy dose of theatricality, director Robert Rosen has left ample space for the audience to strike its own relationship with the text. For most viewers, I suspect this relationship will be a highly satisfying one. CP

Beauty and the Beast plays at the Orpheum Theater through January 7 (call Ticketmaster at 989-5151); The Hunchback of Notre-Dame: 1482 runs through February 11 (333-6200).

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