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Theater review: Tale as old as time still enchants at NorShor

The arrogant hunter Gaston (Evan Kelly) tries to woo Belle (Emily Ahrens) in “Beauty and the Beast” at the Duluth Playhouse. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Dancing forks, showgirls as plates, a feather duster cavorting with a candlestick, a talking teacup, the obligatory plucky heroine, and a brooding hero. The Duluth Playhouse’s enchanting “Beauty and the Beast” had all the bells and whistles to win the hearts of the opening night audience Thursday.

Ann Gumpper’s elegant set, with tricks up its sleeve, embraced the Norshor’s color schemes and style, providing a lovely fairy tale playground for the classic Disney story.

Costumes (many from the Chanhassen Dinner Theater) were eye-popping and fittingly over-the-top. A fashion parade of living furniture and household bric-a-brac, a kaleidoscope of brightly dressed ensemble players — and the iconic golden ball gown — added to the evening’s magic.

Emily Ahrens, as Belle, hit all the right Disney heroine chords, with her standout vocal moment “A Change in Me” showing her vocal power. Locked into prosthetics, hair and dark makeup, Shad Olsen still brought out the Beast’s humanity and looked every inch the fairy tale prince after the transformation.

Though the show is called “Beauty and the Beast,” it is written to give the supporting players the chance to steal the show, and “grand larceny” was committed by many in this talented cast.

Evan Kelly, playing Belle’s self-absorbed suitor, owned many of the show’s strongest moments. He matched his imposing physicality and egotistical swagger with his crystal clear, commanding and powerful baritone.

The Broadway-ready Kelly brought the production alive with the show-stopping “Gaston.” Guest director/choreographer Joe Chvala’s brilliant choreography, with the ensemble’s mug-clanging high jinks, is a highlight of Act I.

In a theatrical dictionary under “bumbling sidekick,” Andy Roemhildt could easily be the illustration. As LeFou (the Fool), he matched Kelly’s polished performance vocally and physically.

The Beast’s anthropomorphic household staff gave the show much of its heart and warmth. The “suave candelabra,” Lumiere (Matias Valero); the “tightly wound” mantel clock (Mike Pederson); the “flirtatious feather duster” (April Roeder); the “opera diva” wardrobe (Tanya Moore), and Mrs. Potts (Michele Sorvik, the “maternal enchanted teapot”) were all deservedly audience favorites.

Pederson hit it out of the park with his trademark British rolling r’s accent, his rubbery facial expressions and his impeccable comic timing. All fluttery and French, Roeder is wonderful as Babette, stealing the stage on her every entrance.

Elegantly delivering the romantic title song, “Beauty and the Beast,” Sorvik is becoming a genuine Playhouse star, re-inventing herself in each role, and always spot-on with her characterizations and gorgeous voice.

An ensemble standout is gender-bending Ben Peter, all bouncing curls and mugging face, as one of the “Silly Girls.”

“Beauty and the Beast” is meant to have the wittiness required to keep the adults in the crowd engaged. But it might be best enjoyed in the company of a wide-eyed child seeing it for the first time. A holiday gift for everyone, the playhouse has wrapped this charming package up with a bow. Definitely be their guest!

Sheryl Jensen writes entertainment reviews for the News Tribune.

If you go

What: “Beauty and the Beast”

Where: The Duluth Playhouse at the NorShor Theatre

When: Nov. 29-Dec. 16, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $35-$50 (depending on seat location), student rush (25 and younger $25 at the door). Call (218) 733-5555 or go to www.duluthplayhouse.org.

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