By STEVE FEENEY
After another successful holiday season, the Nutcracker mice and symphony reindeer were finally cleared from Merrill Auditorium. Now, another more melancholy creature slouches across the wide stage.
The touring musical theater version of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" has come to Portland for a two-day, three-performance run.
The show might try a little too hard at times, with flashing strobes and streamer cannons going off, not to mention some Vegas-style dance numbers. But its sweet story and high-quality tunes made the biggest impression at Friday night's opening performance.
The highly successful animated movie from 1991 was the first Disney take on the classic French fairytale.
A few years later, Disney produced a live-action Broadway musical version that pleased most audiences, particularly in the younger age brackets.
This latest touring production pulls together most of the original behind-the-scenes team from that show and includes, onstage, many talented performers (as well as a first-rate orchestra in the pit).
The show stretches its fairly simple story over two-and-one-half hours with intermission, alternating large and small musical numbers with a good serving of wacky comedy.
Darick Pead plays the wayward young prince who's transformed into a beast by an evil enchantress. Like a cross between Quasimodo and a buffalo, Pead's Beast was part menace and part love-sick puppy who, later on, got to belt out impressive versions of "If I Can't Love Her" and the title tune, the latter in duet with his love interest Belle.
As the heroine, Hilary Maiberger balanced her character's feistiness with some strong romantic undertones as the story went along. Her singing on "Home" and "A Change In Me" were about as good as it gets in musical theater performance. She had the audience on her side from the start, including many remarkably quiet and attentive young children.
The comic players were generally good, with Joe Hager a macho goof as Belle's suitor Gaston.
An acrobatic Jimmy Larkin, as the sidekick Lefou, was also memorable, as were Erin Edelle, Hassan Nazari-Robati, Jessica Lorion and James May as the Beast/Prince's servants. Little Charlie Jones also got a big hand from the crowd.
Some puppet wolves made for a couple of spooky interludes that suggested other avenues the production might have taken. But, overall, this "Beauty and the Beast" made for an entertaining time at Merrill.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.Tweet