'Disney's Beauty and the Beast' still a transformative experience

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Let’s pretend we’re about to go on a vacation, shall we?

After the horrific shootings in Orlando and other tragic events, sure, we mourned. But let’s embark on a very familiar, multi-award-winning Disney experience that will still prove to be transformative, refreshing, energetic and feel fresh.

It will be emotional as well and heartbreaking at times, but this is not only a Disney outing; it’s a live theatrical one. Theater, as we know, mirrors life, so it’s not a total escape.

 The dark parts won’t be too bad, you’ll see. And unlike in real life, this is a fairy tale. Therefore, we know everybody will magically live happily ever after.

Buckle up.

You might want to close your eyes to envision what you’ll see.

Pretend we’re on an airplane, because the oxygen mask above will prove beneficial. Certainly it will help you deal with the spectacular, breathtaking special effects of the mostly impressive non-equity national touring version we will see of the beloved Broadway musical “Disney's Beauty and the Beast.”

We won’t be on an airplane, but the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, where the tour will remain grounded through Sunday. If you wish to experience this vacation elsewhere, be our guest! The touring company will fly from South Florida to a host of other cities after Sunday’s performance.

Of course, like any vacation, some of the sights will prove more eye-popping, inventive and professional than others.

We’ll witness an elegant backdrop with sparkling silver stars and the image of a moon for the formal dinner for Belle (the “Beauty”) and the Beast. We’ll be their guests as our primary hosts, a cursed candlestick figure named Lumiere (a sexy, giddy and flamboyant Ryan N. Phillips) regals us with an inviting, vivacious version of the lively “Be Our Guest.”  The lighting (by lighting designer Natasha Katz) is festive as is the brightly colored scenic design by Stanley A. Meyer, featuring hot reds, pinks, lavendars with lime and aqua accents. Other visual surprises await us.

A similarly candlelit, but darker experience awaits us in the Beast’s castle, featuring an ambiance of cold blues and purples. With all the candles, we’ll feel as though we’re not on an airplane, but a boat, floating on the water within the Phantom of the Opera’s lair. The dark lighting and colors is quite a contrast from that which we experienced at the festive dinner. The lighting and darkness inside the Beast’s castle will help us feel the homesickness and longing Belle feels for her father, Maurice (a sensitive, helpless and panicky Thomas Mothershed).

Mothershed’s Maurice will remind us of a bullied youth laughed at and scorned because he’s different. It will be helpful for the kiddos accompanying us; they’ll see for themselves how it feels to be ridiculed and called names.

We’ll also spend time with Belle, who will prove a quintessential role model for all ages. Thanks to the charm, zest for life and caring nature with which Brooke Quintana imbues Belle, we’ll see a young woman who exemplifies the kind person we all wish to be.

The heartbreak and helpless desperation she conveys when the beast threatens to keep her father captive will make us feel for her. And we might want to have tissues nearby; when she begs the beast to keep her instead of her father, who in turn says he’s lived free long enough, he’d rather be the hostage, tears will likely trickle down our faces.

We’ll marvel at the expressive, strong voice with which Quintana is blessed, but also her vivid facial expressions to convey emotions from dreaminess to utter joy, compassion, fear and an unbudging, strong-willed resistance. You might recall this steadfastness occurs when the Beast tries his darndest to politely ask Belle to dinner. Problem is, this cursed ugly creature (at least on the outside) has a bad temper and finds it hard to be polite and win people over. As the beast’s social skills improve, the children accompanying us will learn yet another lesson in how to make friends.

Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” would no doubt be proud of Hartley’s beast and the characters who coached him how to win Belle over. Sam Hartley, who plays the beast, makes the creature’s change in demeanor and attitude appear seamless, transforming convincingly from a growling, menacing animal-like being to an insecure but kind, polite and modest person. We’ll see that kindly, eager-to please look beneath the hideous mask he wears.

For those who haven’t experienced this journey before, and chances are there aren’t too many, some background is called for. This beast was once a handsome, young, conceited prince who shooed away an elderly, unsightly woman who asked to stay the night at his castle. He was repulsed by her looks. The forgiving woman, though, gave him another chance to see beyond her ugly exterior. The young prince (a conceited Mike Baskowski, standing tall and proud) wouldn’t budge. This unappealing elderly woman is actually an enchantress, and she places a curse on him that turned him into a beast and his household into inanimate objects. The ingredients to break the curse include a red rose and its petals as well as the prince’s ability to love someone and receive love back from that individual before all the petals fall off.

In this production, the woman’s “transformation” to an enchantress is hardly a transformation to beauty. The changed woman bears a resemblance to the ghost of Frumah Sarah, the spirit of Lazar Wolf’s first wife in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek mostly fails as Gaston, a self-adoring, proud, ego-filled, manly jerk who believes he’s entitled to Belle. Unlike the Beast, he’s handsome on the outside, but beastly qualities lurk within him.

Unfortunately, we’ll find Smith-Kotlarek doesn’t come close to conveying Gaston’s narcissism or arrogance. When he’s told by one of his admiring girls that she doesn’t deserve him, his response, “Who Does?” contains no hint of a conceited, shameless man speaking.

This Gaston, at least in the beginning, is more like an Elvis-type character who’s aloof. There’s even a charming quality to his smile. That’s not Gaston at all. Smith-Kotlarek fares better as the production proceeds, imparting a threatening quality to the big man when he’s matched up against the beast.

 An outer undesirable appearance doesn’t necessarily translate to an undesirable spirit on the inside and vice versa.  That’s the musical’s theme, as the musical will make us well aware. Not to carp too much, but the theme’s basically spoonfed to us at the beginning.

The musical also features some corny puns but there will be plenty of chances to laugh.

This production is one of the funnier renditions of “Beauty and the Beast” I’ve seen. Director Rob Roth has mined the show for its comedy and Matt Dasilva’s performance as Gaston’s “sidekick,” Lefou is a prime example. Dasilva gives us a silly character of low comedy who’s part fool and part clown. Many high-pitched laughs and other sounds emanate from his mouth, which features missing teeth. It will have the children in stitches, as will Gaston’s flinging him around as though Gaston were a toy sailboat being tossed about in a tempest.

Other sources of humor in which we’ll delight include Samuel Shurtleff’s bundle of nerves as Cogsworth, Madame de la Grande Bouche (Stephanie Harter Gilmore as ever the prima donna) and Danny Burgos as a cartoonishly evil Monsieur d’Arque. The costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward, are eye-catching and sturdy-looking.

Get ready for your heart to melt, thanks in part to the soft, soothing rendition of the title song by Mrs. Potts (a motherly, charming Stephanie Gray). She sings it while her young son, who’s been transformed into a teacup thanks to the curse by the elderly woman, sits nearby. In the reviewed performance, the boy-turned-teacup, Chip, was played in a darling, hopeful manner by Jake Jones. He wants to be a “real boy” again, and who can blame him? During our journey, we may either see him or Deandre Horner in the role, depending on our date of arrival. Your heart will melt when you see him dash across the stage, free from the confines of the teacup and running into his mother’s arms like your typical happy, cute, pint-sized child.

The expressions on the face of Quintana, as Belle, will also touch your heart as she sings an emotional, powerful rendition of the song “A Change in Me,” during which a sense of recognition is vividly etched into her face and voice.

The show’s music, if you haven’t found out already, is first-rate, not just for its memorability but in its ability to help a character more deeply express his or her emotions.

This is true, for example, with the frustrating tones of “If I Can’t Love Her.” Hartley pours his heart and soul into the number, almost trying to will himself to do so.

By now, you should be itching to go on our journey to the world of this beloved fairytale. Even if you’ve been on it countless times, it’s the type of experience from which you take away something new following each visit.

This show is a much-loved but old musical – as ancient as time itself. But it’s also timely and timeless. It’s no accident that the live show, adapted from the animated film, played on Broadway for more than 13 years, totaling 5,461 performances and becoming the seventh-longest running show on Broadway. The show has also played in more than 120 cities and 21 countries, logging more than 15,000 performances.

 The current tour, which we will see, is several years old. The current company of actors has been at it since September. Yet the show feels as fresh as though the performers just slipped into their roles.

Fasten those seatbelts to soar into the heartfelt, hypnotic, adventurous, dramatic and comedic tale as old as time…even if for the umpteenth time, which will feel like the first.

“Disney's Beauty and the Beast” continues through Sunday in Ft. Lauderdale and then continues on to other cities. For times, prices and venues, log onto www.beautyandthebeastontour.com.