EVANSTON — From the first appearance of the snobbish prince rejecting a cloaked beggar’s proffered rose to the bedazzling finale, Evanston High School’s performance of the Broadway musical “Beauty and the Beast” was a glorious success.
The musical ran from Thursday-Saturday, May 4-6, and won high praise from many viewers, as it had everything from somber reflection to sidesplitting comedy, and sometimes both at the same time. The production showcased collaboration from many departments as well — singing, dancing, acting, strength, superb costuming and set design, effective lighting, seamless scene transitions, accompaniment and more.
And in Evanston, where the most easily available version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is generally through the animated 1991 movie and this year’s live action film, there were some new songs from the Broadway performance, including “No Matter What,” “Me,” “Is This Home?” “How Long Must This Go On?” “If I Can’t Love Her,” “Human Again,” “Maison de Lune” and “A Change in Me.” These songs had some of the strongest performances as they lent the students the chance to bring a fresh perspective.
Some of the performers not only took on the challenges of the more classic Disney songs (which can bring greater pressure and constraint because of their long history) but flourished within them and brought it to new life.
Kayli Sharp opened the show as Belle with a mature, beautiful performance of “Belle” in her “poor provincial town.” As she progressed from her small town life to heroism and adventure in an enchanted castle with an enigmatic beast, Sharp carried herself with aplomb, grace and the beauty of Belle’s namesake.
Gavin Simmons, “Beast,” lent the Beast both initial anger and frustration and a more somber and self-reflective transformation. Simmons was often quieter and sadder than some of the flashier characters, and his performance inspired sympathy and understanding of his plight as he meditated on his misery and his servants’ ill fortune.
Dee Miller as Gaston was a huge surprise with his booming voice and stole the show as only Gaston could. He arrested attention not only with his vocal power and range but with his ability to pull off Gaston’s swagger and misogynistic pomposity. Several times, the audience burst into applause at the end of his songs — and not only for Miller but for LeFou, portrayed by Dylan Phillips. Phillips as comic relief, frequently drew laughter, whether he was shrieking about his terror of the woods and spiders or claiming Maurice’s scarf for his own.
Brock Sponenburgh truly shone as Lumiere, shedding light not only through his portrayal of the charismatic candelabra but occasionally with more insight into the plight of the castle’s occupants. Sponenburgh swept his way through the show with panache, combining a faux French accent with flamboyance and character — and sometimes inspiring the audience to both deep thought and laughter within moments of each other.
The staid Cogsworth, played by Lincoln Swett, perfectly balanced Lumiere’s exaggerated splendor with his more severe rule-following.
Not just the stars of the show but also the secondary characters and even extras brought their strengths to the show and left the audience laughing or sighing.
Anya Tuft as Madame de la Grand Bouche left the audience in sidesplitting laughter while Belle sang “Is This Home?” as Tuft in the background whipped a handkerchief dramatically from her bosom, miming operatic sympathy. She also dazzled with her high operatic voice during the musical numbers.
Each one of the nearly 40 young actors and actresses who took to the stage carried the show with aplomb, whirling the audience away in an enchanted evening. The performance could easily have left audiences happy just to see the kids doing well, but the actors reached beyond the easy success of a popular fairy tale to make it their own and oftentimes reach near-professional level.
As the final scene drew to a close, Saturday’s audience burst into applause and gave a long standing ovation for everyone, including directors Heather Blackwell and Erin Russell, whom the actors pulled onstage for the ending bows.