Local theater tackles tale as old as time, and delivers

Erica Lustig as Belle and Ezekiel Andrew as the Beast at WPPAC.

She was a beauty and a bookworm, an oddity to the villagers in her provincial French town.

He was a spoiled prince, held prisoner in his palace by a curse that transformed him into a monstrous beast and the workers who lived in the castle into household objects.

On the surface, the two had little in common and hardly started off as friends.

That premise — set to the magical music of Alan Menken — became one of Disney’s most cherished films. “Beauty and the Beast,” the 1991 animated film based on the French fairytale of the same name, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and Best Original Score. It was the first movie to receive three nominations for Best Original Song, and the first animated film nominated for Best Picture.

It became adored by critics and fans alike, spawning a staged adaptation on Broadway from 1994 to 2007 and a live-action film starring Emma Watson as Belle in 2017.

This season, White Plains Performing Arts Center mounts its own production of the epic love story, with performances through Jan. 13. The center calls “Beauty” “the largest and most elaborate” production in the theater’s 15-year history, and makes good on its promise.

The WPPAC adaptation boasts elaborate costumes, varied sets and a 10-piece live orchestra, which plays offstage. Erica Lustig and Ezekiel Andrew star as Belle and the Beast, each holding their own. Lustig’s Belle is perhaps less spunky than she could be, but her clear, fruity voice shines on such numbers as “Home,” a soaring ballad from the Broadway adaptation. Andrew is funny and frightening as master of the house, his behavior often reminiscent of a petulant child.

His first appearance as the Beast is harrowing, in exceptional makeup, horns and an animal-like snout. When Belle’s father Maurice (David Beris) wanders into the castle after nearly being ravaged by wolves, he settles in to warm himself by the fire and is greeted by a suite of not so inanimate objects: Lumière the candlestick, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot, Babette the feather duster and Chip the teacup. All are gracious and inviting, until a ferocious growl echoes through the theater (which on Dec. 22 prompted a shriek from a child in the audience) and the Beast suddenly towers over a trembling Maurice. The Beast accuses Maurice of trespassing, and locks him away in a dungeon for his crime.

In the castle, Brendan Doyle is wonderful as the shrewd and practical Cogsworth, but Patrick Pevehouse as Lumière is the show’s biggest scene-stealer. He nails all the Odd Couple-like dialogue with Doyle and the flirty rapport with Babette (Elizabeth Brady). Pevehouse also played Lumière in NETWorks Presentations’ “Beauty and the Beast” national tour.

Back in town, Belle fields passes from Gaston (Tom DeMichele), a handsome, heinous chauvinist who insists Belle put away her books and focus her attention on baby making and caretaking. Gaston’s resident punching bag Lefou (Robert Peterpaul) often trails behind him, offering pep talks that suggest “no one’s slick as Gaston, no one’s quick as Gaston.”

Peterpaul’s Lefou is the most cartoonish of the lot, with Jim Carrey-esque facial expressions and lots of exaggerated falls. It gets old pretty quickly, but kids in the audience keep laughing even after he endures his first, third and eighth punch to the nose.

Purists will enjoy DeMichele’s traditional take on Gaston (keep an eye out for the animated self-portrait he gives Belle) and the iconic transformation at the show’s close.

The production’s high points include lively choreography by Lexie Fennell Frare, interactive costumes and beautiful lighting design by Jamie Roderick. Its spirit is best exemplified in the number “Be Our Guest,” which delivers ear-to-ear grins. 

Tickets are $28 to $57 and selling fast; available at wppac.com or by calling 328-1600. WPPAC is located on the third level of City Center, 11 City Place, in downtown White Plains.

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