MPT’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ captures just enough Disney magic

Take on animated original is a tale as old as time
MPT’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ captures just enough Disney magic
Courtesy photo
Seriously, no one mugs like Gaston, played by Dan Jajewski (pictured third from left) in Middleton Players Theatre’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Staging Disney musicals can be a tricky scimitar to wield, if you’ll forgive the out-of-place “Aladdin” reference.

On the plus side, the massive pop-culture ubiquity of beloved princess staples like “Beauty and the Beast” — the musical Middleton Players Theatre is performing through this Sunday — assures that everybody, from the kids to the graybeards, knows the story and can hum along with all the hits. (Be our guest, right?) On the other hand, there’s also this unspoken expectation that the show is somehow going to duplicate the “oh wow” magic of the animated original.

And that can be a tall order.

MPT mostly manages to master it, although you can see points where the strain exceeds the company’s reach.

MPT’s production makes a point of building things slowly. The opening stage set features nothing but the modest cottage that Belle (played as an adult by Kelsey Odorizzi and a teenager in flashbacks by Faith Oldenburg) shares with her inventor dad, Maurice (a somewhat too squeaky Karl Scheidegger). Don’t freak: Before long, it’ll expand to include the town bar and the castle of the Beast (Nathan Connor).

Because of the way the musical is structured — Belle and the Beast don’t really become a defined and sympathetic couple until they’ve spent some time together — Dan Jajewski’s Gaston is given ample opportunity to steal the show, and he takes full advantage. Deft makeup work uses cartoonishly heavy eyebrows and lambchops to emphasize Jajewski’s face, which already had a sardonic vibe down pat. The hilarious “Gaston” number — with Jajewski mugging to the audience while everybody else is rocking a mug-clunking line dance — is infectious and fun. It’s the kind of thing you’d be tempted to start up at your next happy hour.

The show’s other big, familiar numbers play out a little differently. “Be Our Guest,” for instance, takes its sweet time building to crescendo. The first part of the song — the one with all the lyrics we remember — features ensemble dancers with huge forks and spoons strapped on their backs surrounding Odorizzi’s Belle, and frankly, it’s a little underwhelming. Luckily, there’s a lot more to come, and by the time it’s done, the stage is full and the song has realized its potential.

Odorizzi and Connor work well together, and each gets at least a couple of opportunities to show off their vocal prowess. Connor brings the house down at the end of the first act with “If I Can’t Love Her.” Odorizzi, playing Belle with a good mix of charm and toughness, holds the stage from her first scene. (Special shout-out to Oldenburg, who brings an honest sweetness in her brief scenes with Scheidegger’s Maurice early in the show.)

As the transformed castle servants, Carter Krzyzaniak, Bobby Goderich and Ashton Siewart have a rollicking time as Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts. Krzyzaniak’s flooped-up hairstyle, designed, naturally to look like a candle flame, is a great way to emphasize his character’s foppish Don Juan tendencies. Goderich, meanwhile, is appropriately blowsy as the rules-following chief of staff. They all get plenty of laughs lines, as does Ryan Odorizzi’s LeFou, whose affection for Gaston is not exactly well disguised.

It’s easy to like the costume and makeup work that turns Connor into his beastly alter-ego, with drooping horns, a curly wig worthy of peak Weird Al Yankovic and a prosthetic lower lip that makes him look like a fanged Muppet come to life. Connor’s physically imposing presence has been used to great effect by Children’s Theater of Madison — he’s created a fearsome Jacob Marley on multiple occasions — and MPT makes the most of it, too.

One of MPT’s enduring strengths is the earnestness of its actors and ensemble, and in the end, it’s enough to evoke the Disney-esque magic we want from this tale as old as time. The final scene transformation still packs all the joy and wonder you remember — even without the animated effects.