Nicki Elledge (center left) as Belle and Jeremy Scott Blaustein (center right) as Lumiere in Beauty & The Beast

Beauty & The Beast at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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Ma chere Mademoiselles— and monsieurs— it is with deepest pride and greatest pleasure that Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia welcomes you tonight. They invite you to relax, to pull up a chair as they proudly present Disney’s Beauty & The Beast. Be— their— guest! Be their guest! Put their service to the test! With exquisite food, a stunning show— here you’ll only get the best! They’ve got song! They’ve got dance! Please don’t dare to miss your chance— to see a stunning show staged up exceptionally! Go on, enjoy their venue, a real delight to— be their guest, be their guest! Be their guest! Directed and Choreographed by Mark Minnick, this tale as old as time is childhood reinvented for the young and young at heart, capturing priceless moments that awaken the uplifted spirit of the theatrical soul for a wondrous evening of enchanted theatre magic.

Nicki Elledge (left) as Belle and Russel Sunday (right) as Beast in Beauty and The Beast
Nicki Elledge (left) as Belle and Russel Sunday (right) as Beast in Beauty and The Beast Jeri Tidwell Photography

Transforming the intimate in-the-round venue into a French village is a trying enough task, but fabricating an entire enchanted castle that is mobile and fluidly transitory is accomplished only by the masterfully seasoned design skills of Resident Set Designer David A. Hopkins. Working closely with Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin to properly enchant the scenery for maximum magical thrills— like the ominously lit gargoyle statues upon the walls or transforming the portraits inside the castle to silhouetted countryside cottages for the village scene by way of shadow and light play— the dynamic duo of designers sets down an aesthetic that is the mystical base for all of the magical wonder that follows throughout the production. Hopkins’ pièce de résistance is the stunning turntable elevated on the main platform that instantly takes the Beast from inside his gloomy West Wing Liar out to the stone balcony of his highest tower. This scenic effect, along with Gaston’s imposing fur-and-antler throne inside the tavern, are magnificent works of scenic art; so too is the Beast’s great gift to Belle, once it is revealed. Joslin and Hopkins even create a zany motorized contraption— complete with lights and moving parts— for Maurice to ride off to the fair. Their teamwork is flawlessly magical and truly enchanting.

Dazzling, daring, delightful, and decadent do not even begin to describe the utterly miraculous costumes that outfit every inch of this production. Costumer Designer Lawrence B. Munsey pulls out all the stops for a breathtaking array of wonderment and astonishment. The iconic looks from the animate classic, and every incarnation since, are all still present; this includes Belle’s provincial blue dress, her stunning golden ball gown, and the beast’s royal blue suit. Munsey parades a plethora of pretty pieces all through “Be Our Guest” including the most grandiose fixture that steals the spotlight of the song— a Chandelier Ball Gown, dripping in crystals and pearls (and worn with exceptional grace by Coby Kay Callahan)— that sparkles and shines as the centerpiece among a good dozen other clever costume concoctions. The pink and gold cutlery and dish ensemble are to die for; getting into the intricate wonders and utter fabulousness of the principle enchanted object costumes would require a review all its own. It can be said beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is Munsey’s finest sartorial selections in the past decade; the palpable magic, the spectacular spectacle that these costumes creates brings the true spirited aesthetic of this Disney musical to vibrant, radiant life.

Director Mark Minnick’s approach to the production is pure theatrical sorcery. Imaginatively inventive, Minnick takes a timeless classic Disney tale and polishes it with a shine of accessibility whether you’re a child or child at heart. Presenting the narrative in earnest without pandering to children while still keeping them captivatingly engaged with the story, Minnick’s direction makes the theatrical experience thoroughly enjoyable for audiences of all ages. With precision casting, a concrete working knowledge of blocking and spatial awareness for in-the-round staging, and an deep understanding of pacing, Minnick’s show is Disney decadence beyond compare. Achieving theatrical honest inside a lighthearted fairytale, Minnick brings forth touching moments between various characters, presents honest glances into the tender relationships that tug at the heartstrings, and presents a sensational show well worth enjoying from the first note of the overture through to the final bows.

Nicki Elledge (center left) as Belle and Jeremy Scott Blaustein (center right) as Lumiere in Beauty & The Beast
Nicki Elledge (center left) as Belle and Jeremy Scott Blaustein (center right) as Lumiere in Beauty & The Beast Jeri Tidwell Photography

As the show’s Choreographer, Minnick challenges both performers and the audience to embrace a happy hybrid of iconic moments with new routines and excitable elements wound tightly into one daring dancing package. The parade of indefatigable energy whirling through “Be Our Guest”— featuring the enthusiastic tumbling carpet (AJ Whittenberger) among many other sprightly ensemble members as fanciful enchanted objects— is the show-stopping number without question. Routines of all varieties, including a quick tango, are featured herein, showcasing Minnick’s versatility and deep bench of dance styles. “Gaston” is another exquisite moment where organized chaos is spun miraculously into compelling dance moments, with table-hopping, mug-clanging, and a great deal of rowdy celebratory motion that keeps the audience cheering throughout the number. Even “The Mob Song”, which is rigid marching at its finest, has a flare of finesse to its fluidity and entrances the eyes so that you move with the crowd as they storm the castle. Minnick knows how to move an ensemble as well as individuals in a style that not only best befits the music but that is an exacting match for the character’s emotional connection to the number.

Guiding that music along with his well-seasoned ear, Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings delivers Alan Menken’s iconic score with gusto. With a six-part orchestra tucked away behind the candelabra-bedecked lair in Beast’s castle, Rawlings  delivers a striking rendition of the infamous songs, one cherished classic after another, matching pitch and tempo to the sensational performers on the stage below. Rawlings is a master for blending harmonies, especially in lesser recognized moments throughout the performance. “No Matter What”— a duet shared between Belle and Maurice— and the nefarious minor-key blends featured in “Maison des Lunes”— a despicable trio between Gaston, Lefou, and Monsieur D’Arque— spring immediately to mind.

David Jennings (center left) as Gaston and Jeffery Shankle (center right) as Lefou and the ensemble in Beauty & The Beast
David Jennings (center left) as Gaston and Jeffery Shankle (center right) as Lefou and the ensemble in Beauty & The Beast Jeri Tidwell Photography

The ensemble will make you shout— “Encore!’ and send them out for more during every number, but especially during “Be Our Guest.” Wild with exuberant enthusiasm, jubilant joy, and dazzling delight that rushes off them like a river of bliss, each member of the singing, dancing throng spirits their way through this number with contagious cheer. Swirling sugar pots and can-can-dancing napkins double up as Silly Girls (MaryKate Brouillet, Samantha McEwen Deininger, Julia Lancione) and live up to their namesake early in the production. This trio embraces the role of drippy bimbo and makes the most out of it when fawning over Gaston, swooning and pining over the brutish heartthrob every chance they get.

Voices of a more classical style wend their way into the characters of Monsieur D’Arque (Andrew Horn) and Madame de la Grande Bouche (Jane C. Boyle.) Both Horn— who doubles up several times in the first act of the show— and Boyle have almost operatic sounds that they import to their characters, with Horn lending a surly and seedy sound to the shifty number “Maison des Lunes” while Boyle boisterously is best featured during “Human Again” along with the other enchanted objects. There’s even an adorable wee teacup, Chip (at this performance Nathan Pham), who pipes up a time or two in there making his too-precious presence felt heartily.

Congenial from the start, the delicate and doddering Maurice (Robert John Biedermann 125) is the kooky old inventor everyone remembers from the animated classic. Biedermann is simply silly, an embraceable portrayal that makes Maurice loveable in the eyes of the audience. Taking to duet with Belle for “No Matter What”, Biedermann puts an open honesty into his singing and creates a truly tender bond between his paternal character that of the spiritedly adventurous Belle.

Elizabeth Rayca (left) as Babette, David James (center) as Cogsworth, and Jeremy Scott Blaustein (right) as Lumiere
Elizabeth Rayca (left) as Babette, David James (center) as Cogsworth, and Jeremy Scott Blaustein (right) as Lumiere Jeri Tidwell Photography

Sensually feathered and flaunting her flirtations with a certain candelabra, Babette (Elizabeth Rayca) is a tastefully racy edition to the castle full of enchanted objects. Rayca, whose voice is a delight, and all the more so with her poised French accent, lends a convivial humor to her cheeky exchanged with Lumiere. Playing a somewhat polar opposite of this flitting feather duster, Cogsworth (David James) is the tightly wound and high strung head of the household. James, jittering with so much energy you’d think he was a vibrating clock, gives into the shenanigans of the others from time to time, departing from his stodgy reserved characterization. With a solid voice carrying through numbers like “Human Again” and his bits of “Something There”, both he and Rayca are charmingly delightful and delightfully charming in these roles.

Nathan Pham (left) as Chip and Lynn Sharp-Spears (right) as Mrs. Potts
Nathan Pham (left) as Chip and Lynn Sharp-Spears (right) as Mrs. Potts Jeri Tidwell Photography

The steaming teapot, Mrs. Potts (Lynn Sharp-Spears)— whose spout arm is truly enchanted as it steams all night long— is pristine nostalgia preserved. Sharp-Spears is a perfect choice for the role, much like a perfect cuppa tea warms the soul after a heavy afternoon of rainfall. With a glorious songbird voice, she alights to the classic “Beauty and The Beast”, capturing the essence of childhood memory and invigorating it with beautiful, breathtaking life. As her mellifluous sound carries through this number and the titular characters slowly whirl their way around the ballroom floor, a sentimental chord resonates within the hearts of everyone that’s ever witnessed this moment. Perky and yet practical, balanced yet bubbly, Sharp-Spears was made to be Mrs. Potts; her portrayal of the character is simply sublime.

Jeremy Scott Blaustein as Lumiere in Beauty & The Beast
Jeremy Scott Blaustein as Lumiere in Beauty & The Beast Jeri Tidwell Photography

Blazing a beam through the castle with his incendiary personality, Lumiere (Jeremy Scott Blaustein) is more striking than a whole box of matches! Blaustein seizes his moment in the spotlight during “Be Our Guest”; he takes one moment here in which to truly shine and not only does he radiate, but he blinds the audience with his dazzling presence, his sensational characterization, and his vivacious voice. Adapting a physicality that suits the flamboyant French personality of the candelabra, Blaustein stalks his way around the stage in a manner that makes his character truly larger than life. With a French accent that is outrageous and yet well-fitted to the character, he deftly manipulates his stage presence in a way that makes him a central focus when he ought to be, simultaneously balancing himself into the background when others are meant to have attention. Cheeky, hilarious, and full of heart, Blaustein’s Lumiere is phenomenal— one of the brightest spots in the production.

Bumbling blazes, what a buffoon that Lefou (Jeffrey Shankle) is! A comic lunatic, even more cracked than the chip in Chip’s teacup, Shankle masters the character work associated with this zany dip of a man. Affecting his voice into an obnoxiously nasal presentation— and maintaining that sound while singing without compromising the musical integrity of the numbers— Shankle presents Lefou in earnest, earning laugh after laugh from his silly antics, most of which involve physical shtick by way of comic violence. Quite the pair with the brutish Gaston (David Jennings), Shankle delivers wildly animated facial expressions every time the pair go at it, whether it’s showcasing their dance abilities at the top of “Gaston” or brawling about in the middle of it.

David Jennings (center) as Gaston in Beauty & The Beast
David Jennings (center) as Gaston in Beauty & The Beast Jeri Tidwell Photography

All roads lead to Jennings in this musical; his Gaston is as flawless as the character is narcissistic. Oafish, boorish, brutish, and downright pigheaded, Jennings delivers a cocksure presence that is textbook Disney villain from the moment he struts onto the stage during “Belle.” A thunderous roar of vocal amazement, his rich baritone sound resonates through his verses in this number, as well as in “Gaston.” Jennings carries with him a staunch presence, grounding Gaston’s arrogance in his fabulous swagger. “Me”, a song which is as conceited as it sounds, gives Jennings a vessel to proudly display his intense vocal sustains and overall singable energy. Transitioning the character from cheeky egotistical arrogance into devilishly dark villainy in the second act, Jennings showcases his versatility as a performer, creating a striking depth in the Gaston character.

Russell Sunday (left) as The Beast and Nicki Elledge (right) as Belle
Russell Sunday (left) as The Beast and Nicki Elledge (right) as Belle Jeri Tidwell Photography

There’s a beauty, her name is Belle (Nicki Elledge) and there’s a Beast (Russell Sunday.) Taking tremendously iconic characters and transforming them into their own unique presentations, both Elledge and Sunday create beautiful moments on stage every step of the way. Sunday, who channels forthright the adolescent tantrums of his once spoiled princely self (as portrayed resplendently at the top and finale of the show by Justin Calhoun), finds a balance between the childish nature of this savage beast and the raw humanity struggling to approach the surface. Elledge, as the leading female in the production, takes a similar journey of balance, keeping her winsome voice and disposition in proportion with her daring sense of adventure.

Russell Sunday as The Beast in Beauty & The Beast
Nicki Elledge (left) as Belle and Russell Sunday (right) as Beast Jeri Tidwell Photography

Elledge’s voice is technically flawless, finding moments of exacting pitch wherein she carries notes through with crystalline resonance. “Belle”, her namesake song, introduces the audience to just how Elledge has created this heroine, while “Home” and later “Change in Me” explore the rich emotional currents that transform her from beginning to end. Elledge constructs a complete journey over this character arc with strong tethers of sentiment to Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s incredible lyrics. Her stage presence is mindful, her interactions with every character is unique to the relationship Belle has cultivated therein. Delicate moments of connection between Elledge and Sunday’s Beast are unearthed consistently throughout their relationship, making the finale that much more beautiful.Be

Russell Sunday as The Beast in Beauty & The Beast
Russell Sunday as The Beast in Beauty & The Beast Jeri Tidwell Photography

Sunday, as the Beast, is astonishing. Uncovering true heart in this character, he brings forth a tear to the eye in surprising moments, like his spoken confession after scaring Belle out of the West Wing. Capturing the essence of the beast both vocally and physically, he lumbers about as a great monstrosity would, his physicality as present as his vocal intentions. With a voice as rich and mysterious as the enchanted castle in which he ensconces himself, Sunday consumes numbers like “How Long Must This Go On?” and “If I Can’t Love Her”, bringing tears to the eyes as his lustrous sound tugs at the heartstrings when singing these songs. Sunday’s reprise of “If I Can’t Love Her” is the most touching moment in the production.

So, dance by dance! Song by song! They’ll enchant you all night long— and they’ll greet you as you leave, why it’s the best! It’s a fantastic show— you mustn’t miss it so— go be their guest— be their guest—be their guest— please be their guest!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

Beauty & The Beast plays through June 11, 2017 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (410) 730-8311 or purchase them online.

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