Creativity Brings Originality to Area Stage's 'Beauty and the Beast'

Arsht's Carnival Studio Theater Transformed Into a Castle

Belle (Michelle Gordon) walks through the woods in Area Stage Company's production of


Belle (Michelle Gordon) walks through the woods in Area Stage Company's production of "Beauty and the Beast." (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

Aaron Krause, Theater Critic

In Area Stage Company’s immersive, inclusive, and unique production of “Beauty and the Beast,” audience members hold books in place during a scene set in the castle’s library.

This is just one example of young, visionary live theater artist Giancarlo Rodaz being creative and economical.

Of course, in a Rodaz-helmed production, you can expect creativity, originality, and economy. Surely, Southeast Florida live theater audiences know this from past Rodaz-directed productions. They were largely successes. Mostly, so is Area Stage Company’s (ASC) current unconventional production of “Beauty and the Beast,” under Rodaz’s guidance.

It is important to note that Rodaz has kept the entire score and story intact, and therefore faithful to the source material – the 1991 Disney animated film. That is the case, even though this production is likely different from previous incarnations of “Beauty and the Beast” that you may have seen.

LEFT: Michelle Gordon played Belle in Area Stage Company's production of


LEFT: Michelle Gordon played Belle in Area Stage Company's production of "Beauty and the Beast" on the opening weekend filling in for leading lady Yardén Barr. RIGHT: Cogsworth (John Luis) is one of the castle's inhabitants affected by a curse placed upon Prince Adam by an enchantress. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

The show was initially supposed to run Fridays through Sundays through Aug. 28, but the producers announced that they are extending that run and adding more days. Now it's through Sept. 4 and they are adding three extra performances. The venue is the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County’s intimate Carnival Studio Theater. However, for this production, scenic designer Frank Oliva has transformed the theater into a large 18th-century castle. If you frequent the Carnival Studio Theater, you will not recognize it once you step inside.

In fact, there is no stage or curtain. Rather, you feel as though you are in a castle as soon as you enter the theater. Inside, you will discover arched doorways and windows, suits of armor, candlelit lantern-like objects, a throne, and tapestries decorating the dark brown walls. Also, similarly-colored large, wooden tables and benches rest in the middle of the massive room. It all looks like the setup for one gigantic feast.

The cast members use the entire space, and audience members sit within inches of performers. For instance, the actors often stand on the same tables where the audience is seated.

Undoubtedly, you will feel as though you are part of the action. For example, in one big musical number about Belle, the actors gossip to the audience. And for a song celebrating Gaston, the audience at the center table receives prop mugs. Perhaps, as a result, you will feel complicit in cheering on the villainous Gaston.

With the actors so close to audiences, emotions come across more powerfully, making the production feel particularly visceral. ASC’s previous production of “Annie” was also immersive, but on a smaller scale than “Beauty and the Beast.”

For the uninitiated, “Beauty and the Beast” revolves around a curse that an enchantress places upon a selfish, young prince and his castle. As part of the curse, Prince Adam transforms into a hideous beast. In addition, the human inhabitants of his castle transform into household objects such as a clock. In order for the spell to break, the beast will need to love a young woman — and earn her love in return.

LEFT: Belle (Michelle Gordon) and Gaston (Frank Montoto) appear in a scene from Area Stage Company's production of


LEFT: Belle (Michelle Gordon) and Gaston (Frank Montoto) appear in a scene from Area Stage Company's production of "Beauty and the Beast." RIGHT: Belle (Michelle Gordon) is pleasantly surprised that the beast's castle has a library. The beast (Maxime Prissert) shows it to her in Area Stage Company's production of "Beauty and the Beast." (Photos by Giancarlo Rodaz)

“Be Our Guest” is a show-stopping song in “Beauty and the Beast.” But it is also a phrase that neatly summarizes Rodaz’s directorial approach. Indeed, from the time audience members enter the castle’s doors, the entire cast of 16 actors essentially tell patrons to be their guest. The performers cater to you as the wait staff at a cozy, respected restaurant might wait on customers.

ASC’s production of the live stage musical starts immediately. You may just have been seated and a costumed performer holding a lantern will hand you a menu-sized program. “Please, enjoy your dinner,” the character may say in a French accent. Another character told a patron before the reviewed production, “Bonjour, welcome to the castle.” Altogether, the atmosphere feels welcoming, warm, cozy, and inviting.

True, the company does not serve an actual meal to audience members. However, “Beauty and the Beast” leaves you with food for thought about how you may have treated people in the past. Also, maybe the show reminds you to act kinder and be more accepting.

“Beauty and the Beast” suggests that we look past people’s less-than desirable exteriors and find their inner beauty. At the same time, after seeing “Beauty and the Beast,” we might be more aware of the inner “beast” lurking within us. In addition, the musical imparts messages about sacrifice, true love, and being selfless instead of selfish.

For a show that conveys such timely and timeless lessons, Rodaz’s immersive and inclusive production makes sense. Indeed, at the end of the day, how much better might our world be if everyone at some point invited their neighbors to be their guest?

Speaking of “Be Our Guest,” the phrase is also the title to “Beauty and the Beast’s” showstopper. In the song, the castle’s inhabitants welcome Belle to dinner in style.

The production’s performers possess clear, strong, and expressive singing voices. However, sometimes the vibrant-sounding live orchestra drowns them out.

Cast members deliver a rousing “Be Our Guest,” and emote well while performing the show’s other well-known songs. Composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s score includes numbers such as “No Matter What,” “If I Can’t Love Her,” “Human Again,” and “Me.” Certainly, the latter song’s title is appropriate, considering Gaston’s self-centeredness.

As the gorgeous, swoon-inducing Gaston, who possesses a beastly interior, Frank Montoto stands tall and proud. The strong-voiced actor commandingly and convincingly conveys his villainous character’s pride and self-confidence to the point that you root against Gaston. Then again, maybe your inner beast wins out, and you cheer him on during his title song.

Meanwhile, Maxime Prissert, speaking in a low, scratchy voice and brooding, believably conveys fury and impulsivity as the beast. But as the production progresses, Prissert exposes the beast’s softer, kinder interior. For instance, Prissert deftly expresses vulnerability and inner pain through the song, “If I Can’t Love Her.”

Opposite the beast, Michelle Gordon (who was filling in for leading lady Yardén Barr on opening weekend. Barr is expected to return for the rest of the performances) gives us a spirited, sensitive, and assertive Belle. A knock on Gordon's performance was that she needed to sound sadder and angrier when the Beast takes away her father and she says she wasn't even able to say goodbye.

During a duet with Belle’s father, Maurice (a loving and eccentric Imran Hylton), Gordon beautifully expresses Belle’s tenderness toward her father.

By the way, Hylton doubles as a dramatic, opera-singing Madame de la Grande Bouche. In fact, a number of cast members take on more than one role.

Katie Duerr lends Mrs. Potts a calming demeanor and sings the title song so lovely that it sounds like a lullaby.

Rodaz has cast an adult actor, Luke Surretsky, as the child-turned-teacup, Chip. He is supposed to sound innocent, sweet, and cute. However, Surretsky doesn’t lend the character these qualities.

Also, John Luis could sound sillier and more playful as Gaston’s inept sidekick, Lefou.

While the cast’s attempts at French accents do not always sound convincing, they nevertheless lend authenticity to the production.

Behind the scenes, the star is clearly scenic designer, Oliva. Simply put, the castle looks real. There is no hint of the Carnival Studio Theater. In addition, there is ample space for the performers to move and for audiences to sit, without getting in the performers’ way. And when Rodaz needs to highlight characters, he has the actors stand on one of the tables.

Also, behind the scenes, lighting designer Joe Naftal enhances moods with his atmospheric lighting. In particular, Naftal deftly uses color and degrees of intensity to create just the right ambiance. On the downside, actors sometimes begin singing or talking before they are illuminated. As a result, it is difficult during these times to locate the performer. Rob Rick’s sound design is a problem at times, as well. Specifically, it is not always easy to understand the performers.

The costumes, which Area Stage Company Executive Director Maria Banda Rodaz designed, are appealing and period-specific. In past productions of “Beauty and the Beast,” the characters have worn detailed costumes to make them fully resemble, for instance, household objects. But here, the costumes hint at the characters’ identities, leaving us to fill in the blanks with our imagination.

Make no mistake; this is a massive production, with a cast of 16. Impressively, at the same time, it is a stripped-down production, too. In the final analysis, it offers enough striking and information-revealing visuals without becoming merely a visual feast. Despite some shortcomings, it feeds the soul as well as the eyes.

Area Stage Company’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” runs Thursdays through Sundays through Sept. 4. Matinee added on Fridays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $32-$75. The Arsht Center is located at 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami. For more information, go to or call (305) 949-6722.

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