5 things to like — and a few notes — about Madera Theatre Project’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’
The Madera Theatre Project offers its inaugural production, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” in a run that concludes Saturday, June 25. I attended the Friday performance of opening weekend.
When I attended a Blossom Trail Players production of “Bye Bye Birdie” in 2017, I wrote: “Like any flower, a new theater company can be something delicate that needs nurturing.” I’m continuing that approach with “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m not offering a standard review of the production, which struggles at times, but I want to share five things I like about it — plus some constructive comments I hope can help the company raise the bar as it looks toward a promising future.
Five things I like:
1. The title characters. Emily Swalef is strong in the role, offering very good vocals and a self-assured stage presence. The Beast. German Gutierrez, also in fine voice, offers a sensitive, sonorous presence.
2. The Enchanted Objects. Standouts are Sarah Sherwood as Babette and Jasmine Swalef as Madame De La Grande Bouche, both with beautiful voices. James Hume is a spirited Lumiere, and Olivia Hayes, as Mrs. Potts, does a nice job with the title number.
3. The Beast’s transformation is intriguing. Director Jacob Sherwood eschews the usual swirl-and-smoke switch from hideous monster to handsome prince. Instead, in a nod to modern dance, two ensemble members remove the Beast’s costume in full view of the audience. When the head of the costume is removed, it’s a dramatic moment.
4. The new Matilda Torres High School Performing Arts Center is beautiful. It’s a great size and feels like it has a lot of technical promise. For a theater company to call it home base is a privilege, indeed.
5. The enthusiasm and dedication of the cast. I’m guessing that for many, this is their first time on stage. It’s wonderful to think of what it means to bring live community theater to a city.
Now, on to some notes:
The lighting feels rudimentary. Staged in a minimalistic style, the production relies heavily on a professionally designed Disney video background. However, the live lighting design needs to be better integrated with the video, which sometimes felt washed out because of the overall brightness.
The movement of set pieces is visually jarring. Stagehands often bring on and take off various pieces in full view of the audience. Consider having costumed ensemble members do that work, or, at the very least, bring the lights way down.
Think more about the overall color palette of the production. Some of the costumes in the show don’t feel as if they fit in, particularly the shiny purple and yellow outfits in “Be Our Guest.”
The crowd needs more individuation in the ensemble scenes. Some members of the ensemble don’t have much personality. Each one needs his or her own story – what is their character’s role/occupation/position in this town? Are they gregarious, snooty, open-minded or judgmental? The audience may never know those stories, but we can tell when someone feels like a distinct individual and not just a human prop.
The choreography needs to be more precise and confident. The dancing is often what separates a just OK community theater show from a really good one. This might come across as tough love, but if you don’t have the requisite dancing abilities in a cast, maybe another title should be considered.
Think twice about playing much of the action in the crossover row that divides the theater’s seating area. It’s one thing to have actors march through or create a stereo sound during a song. But asking a majority of your audience members to crane their necks backwards to catch key dialogue or moments doesn’t work.
Still, I come back to a simple truth: Theater matters. And this is a promising beginning. I’m sure the memories made by the cast members of this “Beauty and the Beast” will last lifetimes. And it makes me happy to think of the children in the audience experiencing live theater for the first time. I’m looking forward to watching Madera Theatre Project continue its inaugural season (“Harvest Moon” opens July 7, and “All My Sons” opens July 28) and get even better in years to come.