Few things are as pleasurable as sitting in a theater alongside those whose expectations are being well and truly exceeded.
Such was the case on Navy Pier this weekend with director Rachel Rockwell's remarkably excellent 70-minute Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Beauty and the Beast" (or, as the Great Mouse's licensing department apparently requires, "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," lest we think "Be Our Guest" was an invention of Pixar). This is the very familiar Alan Menken/Tim Rice movie-to-musical production, replete with all the well-known ditties. It's a shortened version, developed for young audiences. But watching the abbreviated "Beauty and the Beast" is a bit like watching the 90-minute "Phantom of the Opera" in Las Vegas — you don't miss the material you're not seeing. Actually, you find yourself wondering how they filled up all that extra time.
Rockwell's production is far, far superior to the recent non-Equity touring version that came through town — and, it should be noted, this show, which is being performed during the day on Navy Pier, is offering tickets for $25. For that very affordable sum (less than half of what that other show was charging and with a parking discount to boot), you get such A-list, Chicago-based talents as Mary Ernster (playing Mrs. Potts), David Lively (Cogsworth), Bernie Yvon (Lumiere) and Roger Mueller (Maurice). Instead of some kid just out of school playing the Gaston sidekick LeFou, you have the pleasure of Andrew Lupp, a song-and-dance man with years of comedic experience, backing up Jake Klinkhammer's beefcake Gaston. Best of all, you get Emily Rohm's delightful Belle. Rohm, who has a formidable set of pipes, especially in the lower reaches, and a thoroughly charming presence, is among the very best young singers in Chicago theater. Rockwell clearly understands you don't want to mess with Belle, given that many in the audience come dressed as her. And watching the numerous little girls staring up at Rohm on Sunday afternoon, you could see by their faces that they were watching their fantasies come to life.
The stock of talent is eye-popping. But it's the imagination behind this staging that makes this show so surprising and special; Rockwell has no current peer in town when it comes to conceiving family entertainment. The storytelling is clear and fluid and the comedy in the piece is not only freshly re-imagined (Gaston's flunkies, known as the Silly Girls, have never been more amusing), but the emotions of the show are uncommonly rich and true. One of Rockwell's biggest assets is the brilliant videographer Mike Tutaj, whose new digital projections, part of a set by Scott Davis, seem to draw the environments just as the characters are walking into them. The best example (of many) is the famous scene where the Beast (played, with heart and truth, by William Travis Taylor) shows bookish Belle the library; books suddenly appear as the pair walk, and Belle's delight is so palpable, you get a big lump in your throat.
Actually, emotions hit a number of times in this production, which laudably features a small, live orchestra, under the direction of Doug Peck. The scenes with the wolves are more vivid than you've ever seen. The famous "Be Our Guest" production number works not because it has so many bells and whistles (it does not), but because Rockwell and her cast communicate their heartfelt desire to be hospitable. It's a blast: Lively's Cogsworth is such an honest soul, you can't wait for him to no longer be a clock. And the Beast's trajectory is uncommonly poignant — when Taylor has finally lost all of his facial hair, he turns to Belle like a dazed man who turns to her to keep on living. It's most arresting. One does not expect to see such need.
I think Rockwell and Tutaj could have come up with a better way to approach the famous transformation scene ("Spinning Beast," I like to call it), but that's a minor complaint in a show that takes a beloved title and re-tells its story with a level of truth that it has not seen since — heck, I don't think I've ever seen this show staged with such simple honestly, and I've seen it well more than a dozen times.
This all might seem strangely over the top for an abbreviated daytime show on Navy Pier and a revival of such an over-exposed title; you will not think so after you see how well Rockwell tells a family story (she did much the same with "The Sound of Music" in Oakbrook Terrace) and how her audience responds. On Sunday, even the actors seemed surprised. Their little show, clearly, is better than they think.
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Tickets: $18-$25 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com