by Sam Pynes
Pinewood Bowl, Inc. has created a theatre culture that draws people back. A glance at the program shows that many of the actors, crew, and orchestra members keep returning to this special venue year after year to continue this great Lincoln tradition. The same is true for the audience. This show attracted a considerable crowd, especially for a Thursday opening. The well-over 1000 audience members audibly enjoyed the show and leapt to their feet during the ovation. I think it is fair to say that Pinewood Bowl is the premiere amateur theatrical event for the entire year and consistently attracts the best of Lincoln’s talent, on and off the stage. This is also a special intersection in another way: you’ll notice a fair number of high school students giving a sizable portion of their summer to put on these shows, making this an even more holistic expression of the local theatrical community.
Anybody who has been to any of these productions knows that I am preaching to the choir. But there are some among you who, sadly, have never taken the trek out to Pioneer’s Park to take in this wonderful summer musical tradition. You may be wondering, presumably, whether it is worth the mild discomfort from the summer heat and pesky bugs. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is entirely worth it. Most of the seating is comfortably shaded before 7:30PM, but I highly recommend going early and making an evening of it. The first section is reserved for blanket seating, and spots are claimed early by those who want to enhance their experience by sitting close to the stage. I recommend the middle of the blanket section to capture the actors’ expressions, though the live-capture screen is helpful in this regard if you prefer a bench seat further back.
Venue and tradition aside, what is special about this show that has sustained interest over so many years and inspired several interpretations?
The 1991 animated film is the jewel of the Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaboration that kickstarted the Disney renaissance, which inspired an interest in musical theatre for many children. Beauty and the Beast has remained perennial in the cultural zeitgeist along with their other collaborations, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. The Bowl staged the latter in 2017. This 1994 musical added a number of songs to fill out a Broadway run-time, with Tim Rice stepping in as lyricist to replace the recently deceased Ashman.
The book is a little clunky and not as efficient as its Best Picture-nominated predecessor, but it has its moments. The added songs vary between good and passable, and introduce memorable musical motifs, but Ashman’s voice is decidedly absent in the lyrics. The most important additions give Beast and Belle more opportunity to express character development. A striking added theme is encapsulated in “Is This Home?” as Belle mulls over her situation and advances her quest for adventure and belonging in her world. This, along with themes of compassion and self-forgiveness, is a central theme of this iteration of the story. There is good evidence that this song has left a lasting impression: the musical theme was incorporated into the score for the 2017 Bill Condon film, even though none of the Broadway additions were included as full musical numbers, opting instead for newly-written songs.
When staging a show that has such a deep cultural footprint, anticipating and managing expectations is a necessary consideration. A carbon-copy of a prior iteration is often not possible or even desirable, but when you are making a change it is very important that it is done with confidence and purpose. For example, the role of Lumiere in the original film was originated by veteran musical actor Jerry Orbach, and the way that he begins the centerpiece number, “Be Our Guest” is imprinted on literally a billion childhood memories, even now long after his death. Sam Ninegar (Lumiere) owns this moment in a sultry, captivating way which matches both the show’s iteration of the character and his particular interpretation, and instantly draws the audience into the moment. Ninegar provides a stage presence worthy of the role, as he has in each of his previous characters on the Pinewood stage, assisted by his coterie of enchanted objects, especially the competent Cogsworth (BJ Montague) and the vivacious Babette (Amanda Dewey). The interactions of this core group is fun to watch, even when the book itself is a little clunky. I was surprised to read this the first show Montague has done at The Bowl, knowing that he is such a fixture of The Lincoln Community Playhouse, both on and off the stage. Hopefully this show is the first of many.
The singing in this show is absolutely top-notch. Choruses are balanced and on-key, and though the speakers were occasionally a little loud on the high end for those sitting close, the orchestra is consistently well-mixed so that the underscoring is audible without encroaching on vocals or lines. Bill Maltas conducts a confident and competent orchestra, performing the full Broadway score, rather than the more common and paired-down tour score. As with any volunteer orchestra I expect that they will only improve with each performance, but even if some pitches occasionally wavered, they never lagged or lost pace and kept up the energy straight through the bows.
Claire Wilkinson is absolutely brilliant as Belle, and her beautiful voice carries the emotion of the show without faltering a single step. Her pure and clear vocal tone is absolutely perfect for this role, and the essential quality of unwavering kindness shows through in her characterization of Belle.
The Beast (Bret Olsen) has an excellent vocal tenor, but his early characterizations when the beast is still beastly are less distinct than they could have been and anticipates what an informed audience already knows: that he is a temperamental and insecure but ultimately redeemable human being. Though there are aspects of the book that make it difficult, I think this could have been conveyed to the audience a little more gradually and distinctly. Starting with “Something There,” he really shines as the character becomes more sympathetic and likable, especially in the crucial library scene.
Gaston (Sean Flattery) is pitch-perfect in a role he was apparently born to play, assisted by the timid and obsequious Le Fou (Christian Cardona). Gaston’s voice and manner command the stage whenever he is on it, and his additional scene with Belle in “Me” was an unexpected favorite. The comedic beats are hilarious and, though not a real duet, their voices blend beautifully.
Sandy Fisher Van Pelt is a very entertaining Madame de la Grande Bouche. Maurice’s (David Claus) basso rumble injects heart early in the first act in “No Matter What”. Riley Beranek is a maniacally unhinged Monsieur D’Arque in “Maison Des Lunes”.
Dance is an important part of these shows. As by far the largest stage in the area, there is a lot of space to cover. “The Mob Song” had an especially great sense of energy and menacing movement. My favorite large musical numbers were “Gaston”, “The Mob Song”, and of course, “Be Our Guest”.
The costumes in this show were absolutely outstanding, from plates and knives to 18th Century dresses, fine suits, and powdered wigs. These are some of my favorites of Maralee Maldavs countless creations.
Set design is always a particular challenge for this venue. Not only is the stage unusually large, but there is also a lack of wing-space to store sets prior to and after scenes, necessitating clever and economical use of set-pieces. The modular set, as designed by Jeff and Emily Maldavs, moves quickly and effortlessly behind the downstage scene-work to reveal new locations as each structure turns, opens, or closes to serve multiple purposes.
Extra special kudos to Stage Manager Emma Louise Waechter and ASM Shannon Hanson for what is doubtless a challengingly technical show.
I highly recommend this show as a very worthwhile installment in a line of consistently high-quality summer musical experiences at the venerable Pinewood Bowl. Here’s to another 70 years!
If you go: Beauty and the Beast is being performed at Pinewood Bowl, located at 3201 South Coddington Avenue in Lincoln, NE. Remaining performances are July 12-14 and 18-21 at 8:00 PM. Tickets are available online and at the gate. It is recommended to arrive earlier for preferred seating. An estimated timeline is below.
Timeline for your evening:
Doors open: 5:30
Into and National Anthem: 8:00
Orchestra start: 8:11
First spotlight: around 9
Intermission start: 9:28
Intermission end: 9:50
Orchestra stop: 10:45
Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless.
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