How much Beauty and the Beast can one take within the space of a year? Last May it was the touring production of the Broadway smash, a couple of weeks ago it was the movie remake of the beloved Disney animated film, and here we are again to talk about Beauty and the Beast, but this time it’s the latest production at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, MD. After seeing the show, the answer to that question is … an endless number!
You know the plot by now so we’re not going to rehash it again (you can read both previous reviews if you really need to familiarize yourself). Let’s just focus on the production. Now, I thought the Broadway tour was fine, a good show to introduce children to Broadway musicals. The second act was definitely stronger than the first in terms of the writing, but everything else was on point. I loved the movie and found myself emotionally moved almost all the way home after seeing it, and I have to say Toby’s production tugged at my heartstrings almost as much (but more than the Broadway tour).
A dinner theatre production like this is much, much different than a Broadway tour. At Toby’s the show is performed “in the round” which means there are no huge sets as the cast has to perform to every quadrant of seating. But there are amazing set pieces that are whisked on and off the “stage” in the blink of an eye. Toby’s has a top notch crew keeping the show moving, and they’re usually doing it in the dark, transforming the space from the village square to the Beast’s castle to the pub and back again. It’s almost magical how everything changes so quickly. One of the real perks of seeing a production like this is that you’re so close to the actors you feel almost like you’re part of the story, and when the big crowd scenes take place (such as in the opening number, “Belle”, and the “Be Our Guest” showstopper) depending where you’re sitting, you are part of the show as the actors make their way into the audience at various points. Just having all of these people singing and dancing so close is a much more exhilarating experience than it is watching a performance on a stage thirty feet away. Kudos to director and choreographer Mark Minnick for the ingenuity and imagination it takes to pull something like this off in this type of space (and on a personal note, Mr. Minnick is a gracious host).
Another thing Toby’s Dinner Theatre always excels in is its casting. The theatre does have a regular company of performers who can be leads in one show and supporting characters in the next, and I noticed many cast members from Show Boat filling many of the show’s peripheral characters. Here, though, the two leads are not regular members of the troupe. Nicki Elledge is making her Toby’s debut in the role of Belle and she certainly fits the name in every way. Elledge is gorgeous to behold and possesses a gorgeous voice as well. She brings Belle to life, makes her a real person, never over-acts and makes the audience feel her every emotion. We fall in love with her along with the Beast, she’s that good.
Russell Sunday returns to Toby’s as the Beast, a role he has played here before, and he is remarkable as well. For an actor to be buried under so much makeup that we never see his face, he has to show us who the character is through movement and voice. Stage actors generally have to play their roles BIG so they can be seen from the balcony, and a role like the Beast could go in that direction so Sunday shows a remarkable restraint in his performance so he isn’t over-the-top or cartoony, which would be easy to do in that costume and makeup. Sunday’s movement coupled with his magnificent voice make the Beast fearsome at first, but through the performance we can see him softening as he falls for Belle. Sunday and Elledge just play off of each other terrifically.
Of course the animated denizens of the Beast’s enchanted castle are the real scene stealers, particularly Jeremy Scott Blaustein as Lumiere, the completely over-the-top candelabra with zee thick French accent. He has a tough role because he has no hands, just candles, but it was great fun watching his facial expressions and the way he held his body. And of course he brings the house down with the “Be Our Guest” number. David James is also terrific as the fussy Cogsworth, the foil to Lumiere’s shenanigans, and Lynn Sharp-Spears is a wonderful Mrs. Potts, the mother to young Chip (played at this performance by the adorable Nathan Pham) — and someone who has to mother Lumiere and Cogsworth — and who also becomes a mother figure to Belle. When she sings the title song as Belle and the Beast dine and waltz, that was the moment I felt my emotions begin to get the better of me. The song “Human Again”, sung by the assorted enchanted objects is also an emotional number as they all dream to be themselves again, but realize time is running out. Jane C. Boyle as Madame Bouche (and I loved her wardrobe costume on wheels that gave her the look of gliding around the stage) and Elizabeth Rayca as Babette are also wonderful in their roles.
Of course we can’t forget David Jennings as Gaston and Jeffrey Shankle as LeFou. Jennings’ Gaston is appropriately full of himself, a real oaf and buffoon that the audience can see from his actions, but he never plays the character the obvious. To himself, he is the center of the universe while Belle just sees him as insufferable. But the townspeople, and the audience, is mesmerized by him. Jennings also has a terrific voice and takes Gaston from dope to villain with ease. Shankle is the show’s real comic relief as Gaston’s beleaguered sidekick LeFou, always willing to take a sock to the jaw in service to his friend/master … it’s never really clear exactly why LeFou has attached himself to Gaston but he’s faithful to a fault and Shankle brings a lot of laughs to the proceedings.
Costumes are superb, and the set and lighting design — with illuminated gargoyles, chandeliers, magical candles and paintings that transform into the surrounding landscape of the village — is wonderful, directing your eye to the appropriate spot in the space. One thing that many may not realize at first is that Toby’s has a live orchestra as well, no pre-recorded music here. Musical director Ross Scott Rawlings and his small orchestra sound as good as any Broadway touring orchestra. Dinner theatres sometimes get a bad rap as being amateurish but Toby’s has nothing but accomplished pros on and off the stage. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more professional group of people.
And besides the show, there is dinner, so come hungry! (You can also just come for the show and skip the food.) Each buffet menu has items tailored to the show and this one is no different with dishes like Gaston’s Glazed Carrots, Babette’s Green Beans, Cogsworth’s Corn Medley, Pasta A La Lumiere, Beastly Beef Ragout, Belle’s BBQ Chicken and Baked Fish Le Fou. There’s also a salad bar, steamed shrimp, a carving station and a build your own sundae station! Plus dessert and a special show themed beverage (for kids or adults) called The Grey Stuff, which is a milkshake concoction with blended Oreo cookies and vanilla vodka for those who enjoy a little kick with their milkshake (and it’s super yummy).
Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast gives any touring production a run for its money with its cast and production value, and it’s a show the entire family can enjoy. Many children attended the performance dressed in Belle’s iconic yellow gown and were thrilled when Belle, and the dress, made their entrance (one boy was dressed as the Beast too). And afterwards, you can have pictures taken with the two characters as well. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Toby’s makes for one enchanted evening.