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Theatre Under the Stars' 2016 season gets tribal with 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'West Side Story'

At TUTS in Malkin Bowl this summer, tribalism takes over the Enchanted Forest and the Urban Jungle.

Beauty and the Beast at TUTS 2016
West Side Story at TUTS 2016
Spare staging for "West Side Story" cluttered for "Beauty and the Beast." Photos courtesy Theatre Under the Stars.

Back from the U.S. and the unremitting jabber of presidential politics, just (barely) in time to take the grandchildren -- my touchstones for musical theatre -- to the 2016 season of Theatre Under the Stars.

But still no getting away from those south-of-the-border culture wars; this year's TUTS bill comprises two distinctly American imports -- "Beauty and the Beast" and "West Side Story" -- that are all about tribal antagonisms.

Disney's script-smiths dial down much of the beauty and most of the scary beastliness in the original French fairy tale to deliver a pat little parable of cosmopolitanism versus provincialism. And in their classic "West Side Story" score, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein project the "ancient grudge" of Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets into the rough-and-tumble of mid-20th century New York street gang brawls.

The grandchildren divvied up the TUTS bill according to their latest predilections. The seven-year-old grandson felt a certain empathy for the warring hooligans of the West Side. As an aspiring zoologist and budding belle, the granddaughter, age nine, opted for "Beauty and the Beast."

Grandparents and granddaughters seemed to make up much of the packed audience at Stanley Park's outdoor Malkin Bowl on our B&B night. Many of the girls knew the Disney libretto well enough to sing along sotto voce.

Not our girl, though; the only movie version she'd ever seen of this story, weirdly enough, was Cocteau's spookily surreal rendering. So she was a little flummoxed at first by all the chatty furniture in the Beast's castle -- a conceit more readily graspable, perhaps, in Pixar animation than on the live stage.

But she was quickly won over by the winsome trio of Steven Greenfield, as the fussbudget grandfather clock, Victor Hunter, as the Frenchified candelabra, and Sheryl Anne Wheaton, as the matronly Cockney teapot. These three bravura performances made the palace sequences much the strongest part of director Shel Piercy's staging.

The village scenes, by contrast, seemed overly crowded with stereotypical supernumaries. The only stand-out was Dane Szohner as the narcissistic village bully. He even comes equipped with a Trumpian pompadour (although in jet black rather than hotplate orange), which seems allusively apt when he leads a leads a village lynch mob on a siege of the Beast’s enchanted castle.

The ensuing battle of pitchfork-wielding yokels against dandified courtiers felt like a pixelated back-to-back rerun of America’s Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions.

B&B’s two title characters, Jaime Piercy as beauteous Belle and Peter Monaghan as her beastly prince, turned in brisk and personable performances, but sparked few arcs between them. Their crisp diction managed to convey the witty libretto despite the turgid musical score.

But Monaghan, unlike his animated onscreen counterpart in the Disney original, had to labour through almost the entire script encased in a fuzzy-wuzzy beast suit with face and fingers largely immobile, a considerable handicap for a romantic lead.

Other characters, too, found themselves not so much dressed as upholstered. Costume designer Chris Sinosich struggled mightily to trick out the 40+ cast members as everything from flatware and household furniture, to woodland sprites or wolves -- enough fancy stitchery to make the snug Malkin stage seem extra crowded. Nor was the clutter limited to the wardrobes. Brian Balls' sets also invoked a dizzying array of painted towers and turrets, taxidermy and chandeliers, like an overstuffed attic.

All the more striking, then, the simplicity of Balls' design for the very next night's stagecraft in "West Side Story." He managed to set all 15 scenes using just a couple black-painted monkey bar lattices that could be wheeled into position to become, successively, a back alley hoodlum hangout, a drugstore/soda shop, a school gym dancehall, a tenement fire-escape, a millenary shop and a concrete jungle killing field.

Now and then a black-clad graffiti artist slunk out to furtively spray-paint a  Bardic snippet or two on the blank, grey walls to remind us of the show’s Shakespearean antecedents and modern ghetto locale.

Against such a stark backdrop, director Sarah Rodgers let her actors sand out in vivid relief. Most of them rose to the occasion, with a few that particularly shone. Daniel James White portrayed Riff, alpha thug of the Jets gang, with a Rudi Giuliani voice and body language like Elvis the Pelvis.

Alen Dominguez, as capo of the rival Sharks gang, and Alexandra Lainfiesta as his feisty paramour brought a smouldering Latin flair to the production. Chris D. King turned in a cameo performance as a NYPD beat detective. He spewed his anti-Hispanic racism with a side-mouth snarl that sounded all-too-sadly contemporary, considering that the lines were penned over half a century ago.

But the fulcrum of the whole production was the pairing of Matt Montgomery as Tony and Jennifer Gillis as Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of this retelling. Talk about chemistry! Spontaneous combustion in their love-at-first sight encounter amidst the high-stepping rumba melee of choreographer Tara Friedenberg’s school dance scene.

Rather less successful, choreographically, was the dream sequence at the start of Act II. The grandson agreed, pronouncing the show on the whole overly long and “smoochy.” He did, however, greatly admire fight choreographer Derek Metz’ rumble scenes, especially the drawn-out dying perorations.

And he was quite impressed with nine-year-old Aunjali Panju. Angelic in her white dress and pure soprano, she both opened and closed the show as a “hopscotch girl,” the consummately innocent bystander to so much pointless carnage – a smart and poignant directorial touch. 

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