The first show I’ve seen at the historic downtown Rock Island venue since last September, the sumptuous, deeply felt production easily ranks as one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold, at any theater. Every character is perfectly cast and every piece in this meticulously crafted piece shines to create a dazzling, immensely satisfying whole.
Postponed by the cursed COVID shutdowns of 2020, this “Beauty and the Beast” was well worth the wait and should not be missed.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the fairy-tale story is well known, with the musical (songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice) based on the Oscar-winning 1991 animated film.
We meet Belle, a young woman in a provincial town, and the Beast, who is really a young prince trapped under the spell of an enchantress. If the Beast can learn to love and be loved, the curse will end and he will be transformed into his former self. But time is running out. If the Beast doesn’t learn his lesson soon, he and his household will be doomed for eternity.
I didn’t know this, but the enchanting tale is based on a true story, first published in 1740, “La Belle et la Bete,” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The author was inspired by the story of Petrus Gonsalvus and his bride-to-be, Catherine. Petrus suffered from hypertrichosis, which made thick hair grow all over his body and face, according to Circa. The prince in the musical doesn’t get an actual name.
The three primary leads here are stunningly played all by talented actors in their 20s, including two recent college grads.
Savannah Bay Strandin, 27, is an outstanding, empathetic and plucky Belle. She took a small break from theater in 2018 to kick cancer’s butt, but now she’s back and feeling better than ever, making us feel better, too. Some of her favorite credits include Sandra/Florence (The Play that Goes Wrong), Janet Weiss (The Rocky Horror Show), Helena (Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Violet (Violet, the Musical).
In “Beauty and the Beast,” Strandin wins our hearts from the start, as her feisty character loves books — as an escape from the world into mystery, romance and adventure (same for seeing live theater), but is derided in her town as odd. And she proves “Love is love is love,” by connecting with the “hideous” Beast (the moral here — don’t judge a book by its cover!).
One of the countless delights at Circa is seeing the return of veteran Tom Walljasper as Belle’s absent-minded, lovable father Maurice, a determined inventor who gets lost in the woods and is briefly held captive in the Beast’s castle.
Strandin shows big heart as Belle immediately offers to take her father’s place, and gradually wins Beast’s heart to break the spell (which turned the price into the growling, angry animal and his castle staff into trapped household objects).
Walljasper’s sprightly good nature is endearing, and matched by the supporting cast members, who all work tirelessly to bring Belle and the Beast to a “happily ever after.” Strandin consistently displays a warm, clear and bright singing voice.
From a “Secret Garden” to beast of a role
I knew 2022 St. Ambrose theater grad Kyle DeFauw would be fantastic as Beast before I set foot in the theater.
As a longtime pianist, I was accompanist for the QC Music Guild production of the equally emotional, mesmerizing “The Secret Garden,” which was set to debut in late March 2020 but was cancelled two weeks before opening night. DeFauw, then just a college sophomore, was a tremendously affecting Archibald Craven, a lead in that beautiful show.
His voice is so strong and powerful, and that translates perfectly into the challenging, intense role of Beast. DeFauw wears a mask, wig and headpiece for nearly all of the grueling part, in which he’s hunched over for most of the story — before being calmed and won over by the spell of Belle (and the helpful urgings of his staff).
DeFauw poignantly captures the Beast’s torment, torture and self-doubt, and his Act I closer, “If I Can’t Love Her” is one of many breathtaking highlights of the show. In addition to the never-seen “Secret Garden,” the polished, dedicated actor already came to Circa with an impressive resume.
DeFauw has been seen locally in productions such as SAU’s Little Women (Professor Bhaer) and Chicago (Miss Mary Sunshine); and Countryside’s The Music Man (Harold Hill) and Les Miserables (Marius).
Starry cast throughout
As the cartoonish, boorish, egotistical villain of the show, Joe Collins is an excellent, brutish Gaston, and he just graduated from Western Illinois University in 2021 with a degree in musical theater and dance. That training certainly paid off, as his Circa debut also is great.
Collins soars in leading both the boisterous group numbers “Gaston” (an ode to the man’s powers) and “The Mob Song” (a threatening and chilling plot to murder).
The uniformly professional Circa cast includes Shelley Walljasper as teapot Mrs. Potts; Bobby Becher as candlestick Lumiere; Tristan Layne Tapscott as grandfather clock Cogsworth; Ashley Becher as feather duster Babette; Elsa Besler as wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche; and T.J. Besler as Gaston’s worshipful ally Lefou. The cute teacup Chip is alternately played by Jack Carslake and Marley Haley.
That makes four real-life couples in the show — the Walljaspers, Beslers and Bechers are married, and Strandin and Tapscott are engaged to be married this fall. I loved how the French-accented Babette and Lumiere (Ashley and Bobby) are flirty with each other, and reveal tremendous enthusiasm in their parts.
Tapscott is appropriately tightly wound and often ticked off as clock Cogsworth, falling neatly into many credits where he excels in playing frazzled, nervous and nerdy characters. It’s always the right time when you see him on stage.
Elsa Besler adroitly handles her chest of drawers (that’s got to be an unwieldy costume, as they are for most of the staff), and she is an often regal presence. The motherly, comforting Mrs. Potts is ideally embodied by Shelley Walljasper, who seems born to play the part, and her version of the title song as the main leads sit down to dinner and dance is deeply captivating and wonderful.
Full ensemble adds to joy
Of course, the rambunctious, big ensemble number “Be Our Guest” is another terrific highlight. The dancing china and cutlery (including winning veteran Erin Churchill back as a fork) and the truly forceful, vigorous vocals make this an exuberant, charming standout.
After a climactic, bitter fight between Gaston and the Beast, and the tender declaration of love from Belle, the dramatic show-ending transformation — where we finally see DeFauw’s face and upright posture — is overpowering. The Finale is heavenly, and look for a special dance pose during the bows that echoes a previous magic moment between Belle and Beast.
Magic like this takes a true team effort, and the entire production team expertly delivers — including director/choreographer Shane Hall, music director Ron May, associate director/choreographer Christopher Morrissey, scenic designer David Goldstein, costumer Barb Portinga, lighting designer Heather Hauskins, and sound designers Cory Schneckloth and Emmett Boedeker, and more.
I especially appreciated the magnificent castle set, the beautiful upper right corner with stained glass and the fateful rose under glass, and the effective use of a starry-sky backdrop.
You have less than a month to catch this inspiring “Beauty” before it’s gone for good. And it’s so good, running through July 16. Also, this Saturday, June 25, there will be a special show-only matinee, at 1 p.m. Tickets for that date are $32 for adults and $25 for children ages 3-18.
For tickets and more information, call 309-783-7733, ext. 2, or visit circa21.com.