‘Beauty and the Beast’ was wholesome.
Phoenix Ensemble has successfully welcomed guests near and far to experience an enchanting performance of ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
The infamous tale, which is certainly as old as time, has produced several recognisable renditions to this day, all inspired by the Disney classic. As for the musical version, it followed the same traditional fairy-tale storyline where an arrogant prince has been cursed as a Beast until he learns to love another. Outside the castle, Belle, an independent and headstrong woman, yearns for something more to life. A wrong turn by her father, Maurice, causes the two to meet and a love story ensues.
It’s no new news that Phoenix Ensemble is an ambitious theatre for its size. There’s an expectation that comes with performing Disney musicals as they rely heavily on theatrical magic and an audience actively seeks out that fantastical wonderment. For Phoenix Ensemble, director Justin Tubb-Hearne has treated the little town of Beenleigh with illusions and transformations that successfully realised this mega-musical in a tiny space. Converting the Tin Shed into Provincial France was always going to be a challenge, but for the stellar theatre troupe, it was the least of their worries.
When entering the theatre, audiences were treated to orchestral renditions of Disney classics – a trick that even Disneyland itself uses to set a mood. This simplistic celebration created an iconic atmosphere of intrigue and hyped younger patrons for the coming events. The tunes rang out into the theatre and brought the right type of energy to start the show.
The set allowed us to realise the fantasy and was superbly crafted, with a cobblestone proscenium, stone-painted flooring and a simplistic design that moved scenes in and out with ease. Steps transitioned into towers, a Prince magically evolved into a Beast, and a large ensemble filled the elevated staging comfortably. Not to mention, the design of the quintessential rose, with its petals falling throughout the show, was beautifully achieved. The props, set-pieces and tricks stirred made ‘Beauty and the Beast’ charming. They also assisted with the rising tension and drama that the show has to offer. Such components were thought-out extensively and made the space feel larger, as a result.
Special kudos must be given to the costuming team who replicated the exact garments that have appeared in the Disney cartoon movie. From Belle’s blue corseted village attire that was embroidered in detail, to Gaston’s red leather-bound vest, to Beast’s mask which seamlessly integrated with its actor and finally, the grandeur of the classic ballroom gown – every costume had been prepped, planned and realised. They effectively paid tribute to recognisable illustrations of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and invoked childhood nostalgia.
Being opening night, there were a few hiccups that threatened to derail the event. The sound levels of the backing tracks could have been adjusted – the backing tracks overpowered our ability to hear vocalists as actors’ microphones were quite soft. There was also confusion over the library reveal, with two drop panels that looked seemingly unfinished.
Also, certain obstacles, like a curtain rod breaking, detracted sometimes from the performances – but not only was this unavoidable, it was easily forgotten. Over time, the musical will sharpen, and unruly set pieces will be fixed. There was a roughness to the show that does come with nerves when battling a musical of this size, however, the cast showed professionalism as they continued enveloping their characters.
As leading lady Belle, Manuao Madar was perfectly cast in a role she was destined to play. Embracing the book-loving village outcast with a sweet but strong-willed disposition, Madar was everything we could have wanted from the energetically willful princess (to be). Her expressions and vocal ability made her a standout – especially during the opening title of ‘Belle’.
Starring alongside Madar as the frighteningly ferocious Beast, Michael Mills personified the iconic role. Not only did he bare a freakishly similar look to Disney’s cartoon version of the Prince, but as the Beast, he hit audiences right in the feels. His engaging performance delivered in both fierceness and humble humanity. He had the audience on his side as we longed for the Beast to recover from his mistakes and were fully satisfied when Mills broke the curse.
Other standout performances came from Jason Ianna as the very French and very flirty, Lumiere, and David Morris as the tightly-wound, Cogsworth. The two had an infectious rapport with one another that delivered plenty of comic relief. Their heckling, as they tried their hand at match-making, was hysterical chaos and the audience was all in with their efforts. Ianna was particularly nimble and striking as the candlestick, with his goldened face, whiplash hair and complete characterisation.
Among the ensemble, although there were many who are very talented, it was hard not to notice Lauren Ryan as she embodied a gargoyle and undertook numerous other roles. Her physicality stretched to the nth degree and her infectious smile as she performed was a joy to watch. It’s worth noting, the flexibility of some dancers was astonishing. Phoenix Ensemble has cast a strong team of performers, and choreographer, Amy Rose-Swindells, has successfully played to their strengths. The dance breaks within ‘Gaston’ were a highlight – especially when ensemble members clinked cups in lines and then dropped in a cannon of splits.
Another fancy performance feast, was when ensemble members donned costumes as our favourite dinner treats and danced for the spectacle that was ‘Be Our Guest’. The collective definitely ‘provided the rest’ with mass amounts of entertainment in this number. Once again, costuming added so much to this – even as you noticed extra elements, like an ensemble member who wore sea-like creatures as a seafood platter.
Despite a few hurdles, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at Phoenix Ensemble is a great night of family fun. If you can manage to pull up a chair, as their season has almost entirely sold out, then do yourself a favour. Venture down the highway to a theatre group that does community theatre right. Phoenix Ensemble makes you feel at home, and for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ it’s ever a surprise.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ performs until Saturday, 25 May 2019. To book tickets visit https://www.phoenixensemble.com.au/batb/.
Disclaimer: Cast / Production Members working on this show have also worked for Theatre Haus, but rest assured, we always take steps to ensure our reviews maintain their integrity and are free from bias.