There’s always been something a little bit ridiculous about the staged musical version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Even for the most well-heeled of theatergoers, it’s hard to get around the fact that you’re watching a giant, singing teapot. For feminist-minded viewers, Beauty and the Beast inhabits the weird space between being a story about a woman who is subjected to abuse in order to “fix” an emotionally stunted partner and being an ultimate guilty pleasure power fantasy for us femme-leaning types—played out in all of its splendid, happily-ever-after glory. Combine the over-the-top theatrics and storyline with the catchy music of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman/Tim Rice “Disney Renaissance” dream team and this musical contains all the necessary ingredients for a crowd-pleaser.
But there are pitfalls—so, so many pitfalls. This baroque and campy musical needs a lot of love to nurture it into something that children can enjoy, while being self-aware enough to keep its adult audience invested. I’m happy to report that Olney Theatre Center’s current production, directed by Helen Hayes Award–nominated Marcia Milgrom Dodge, is mostly successful in this venture. They’ve also taken the bold step of breaking this classic out of its dated mold by casting leads who don’t fit traditional stereotypes. Jade Jones, a queer, plus-sized Black woman, was tapped for the role of Belle. Evan Ruggiero—whose leg was partially amputated due to an aggressive bone cancer—plays the menacing Beast. These decisions change everything about the musical, bringing fresh diversity and new energy to a stultified formula.
With Ruggiero’s Beast, you’re immediately engaged in the exercise of considering how a disabled prince turns into such a hideous monster. It confronts, head-on, the ideas that we have about marginalized people being more empathetic and instead emphasizes the reality that shame about a disability (or a sexual orientation or gender identity) can be internalized and become poisonous. Once those of us who are marginalized accept these false narratives about our lack of worth as people, we can often be tempted to weaponize these attitudes in toxic and harmful ways. We are especially prone to “punching down” at those who are more marginalized—or marginalized in different ways—than ourselves. We can align ourselves with our oppressors and ostracize others in our communities who can’t or won’t do the same. And so, Ruggiero’s Beast internalizes his pain and externalizes his rage—leading him to become something truly monstrous.
Likewise, Jade Jones has done a brave thing as Belle. The bodies of Black women, queer women, and larger women are often treated as non-normative (at best) and are certainly not considered to be desirable or beautiful in the mainstream. Jones’ performance is a radical statement of belonging: She inhabits the role; she owns it and it is just as much hers as it would be anyone else’s. Along with her absolute powerhouse vocal abilities, her performance pushes back against a cultural narrative that says she can’t and definitively demonstrates that she can and will. We love to see it!
These elements combine to make Olney’s Beauty and the Beast a story about two outsiders finding love and creating a home with each other, no matter how much the odds are stacked against them. Jones and Ruggiero aren’t just groundbreaking in their roles but are top-notch actors whose stellar performances universalize the experiences of the bodies they inhabit.
Beauty and the Beast is also bolstered by the fantastic performances of the supporting cast. Of note are Dylan Arredondo’s Cogsworth and Bobby Smith’s Lumiere. It’s important to hit the comedic beats of these iconic characters; Arredondo and Smith manage to do so while bringing their own unique flavor to the roles. Iyona Blake (Mrs. Potts) delivers a moving and soulful rendition of the titular “Beauty and the Beast” and brings a particular warmth to the role.
Michael Burrell’s Gaston is appropriately skeevy. The physicality of his role highlights the strengths of Josh Walden’s choreography, especially during “Gaston.” Walden is to be commended on his creative use of the ensemble during the complicated and flashy “Be Our Guest.” There was so much going on at once, but it was an absolute joy to watch.
I have a couple of small gripes about decisions in both costuming and set design. The emptiness of the set is sometimes off-putting for a musical that has such a potentially sumptuous setting in pseudo-France. It’s possible that this has more to do with the fact that there are so many bodies on stage at once. Also, I still can’t figure out what the woman coming down the stairs in “Be Our Guest” was supposed to be. I truly believe the people on the creative team are doing their best with the material. This musical is a massive and cumbersome undertaking, and the work done in this production mostly plays out well. How do you make a person look like a spoon? I don’t know. It’s a weird ask.
Olney’s forward-facing cast truly elevates this “tale as old as time” to new and exciting heights. Fans of the classic, as well as people unfamiliar with the various iterations of the source material, will find this production enjoyable and easygoing. This Beauty and the Beast is a diverse, unique, and thoughtful recreation of a familiar story—thrilling and fun for kids and adults alike. It is truly a stunning production; a perfect fairytale for the whole family this holiday season.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast plays through January 2, 2022, at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. Tickets begin at $42. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students. Tickets can be purchased online.
UPDATE: Olney Theatre Center announced December 27, 2021, that “due to multiple breakthrough COVID cases in the ensemble,” the remaining performances of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — originally scheduled to run through January 2, 2022 — have been canceled: “This is a heartbreaking outcome for our cast, crew, staff, and audiences who made this production such an important and impactful experience. They all deserve a standing ovation.”
View the paperless program here.
Health and Safety: Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required at all indoor events. Those under 12 who are not yet eligible for the COVID vaccine must be masked and accompanied by a vaccinated adult. At this time, we do not accept proof of a recent negative COVID test in lieu of vaccination. Feel free to email [email protected] with questions. or visit our Health and Safety page for more information.
Socially Distanced Seating: Socially distanced seating options will be available in the mezzanine section for all performances of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. At least two seats will be between parties.
Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge on the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ buzz at Olney (interview by Nicole Hertvik)