In modern times, we say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in 1740 a French woman named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve said it another way. She wrote “Beauty and the Beast.” The tale of Belle, a beautiful young woman who can see beyond the grotesque appearance of a beast to (spoiler alert!) find her true love, has endured and blossomed.
The many flowers of “Beauty and the Beast” include two big ones on the same stem — the Disney animated film version and the stage musical that followed. There’ve been lots of others, including the one the Arden is now running through January as part of its Children’s Theatre program. It’s by British playwright Charles Way, a prolific writer – particularly of plays for families and for children — and while it is re-set to Britain and doesn’t have the French village of singing residents or the dancing candlestick your kids may be used to, this “Beauty and the Beast” tells the tale on its own terms.
I find Way’s 2002 version a little talky and stiff, with language like “I can recompense you.” But Whit MacLaughlin – the locally-based go-to director of children’s theater who’s also behind some bold and bizarre stage work with his New Paradise Laboratories – has illuminated Way’s play literally, by infusing it with light and shadow.
The designer of these shadows, which serve as all the basic scenery and mood setters and provide dramatic crescendos, is Sebastienne Mundheim, the artistic director and founder of her own stage company, White Box Theatre. Mundheim, also Philly-based, has created a career and reputation based in good part on her use of light and shadow. Here she outdoes herself, throwing huge images of London, a British village and the Beast’s castle onto walls and onto a circular curtain that moves from a large ring that holds it in David P. Gordon’s stage setting. Many of the images come from light shining on relatively small installations that look something like paper cutouts, but loom large in shadows.
The details may be meaningless to the kids, who compose the majority of the audience, but the effect is not. On Tuesday morning, I sat in an audience of mostly grade-schoolers, and if any one of them dropped a proverbial pin during the two acts, I couldn’t hear it hit the ground. I was the sometimes restless one – the script to me could occasionally use more pep. But the audience moved with it all the way, whatever speed it was going.
The Beauty here is lovely Emilie Krause, who has the moves, looks and fortune to be able to play a wide range of ages – she’s adept in the roles of both girls and women, and after she’s done here with Belle, she’ll become the mousey Honey in a play at the other end of the theater planet, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at Theatre Exile. The Beast is Matteo Scammell, who last month played the creepy arsonist in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s “Detroit.” Here, he flings his long hair forward to give him a wild animal’s face, and lopes around as if he’s a always on the verge of something bad. (The kids seem to love it.)
Brian Anthony Wilson, an estimable presence on stage, is Belle’s dad and Lauren Hooper is her more carefree older sister. Kevin Meehan is a suitor, and the Beast’s so-called housekeeper, who has cast the spell of beastliness on him, is an austere E. Ashley Izard.Richard St. Clair is responsible for the costumes that for Beast, means a nasty looking cape and claws. During previews, the Arden toned down the scary factor of the production – with a cape, claws and shadow-lighting from behind, you can be a pretty terrifying monster. But still, when the tension builds and things get threatening, the production manages to send a little chill even to the older children, like me.
“Beauty and the Beast” is extended through Feb. 8 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.