Jaime Piercy as Belle and Peter Monaghan as The Beast. Photo ©Tim Matheson

Jaime Piercy as Belle and Peter Monaghan as The Beast. Photo ©Tim Matheson

Malkin Bowl, Stanley Park, Vancouver – July 12 & 13, 2016

Theatre Under The Stars has been an annual summer event in Vancouver since 1940.  Surrounded by the lush, temperate rainforest of Stanley Park, TUTS presents outdoor musical theatre productions every night for six weeks, alternating between two productions.   This year, they were Beauty And The Beast and West Side Story, each wonderful in their own way.

Beauty And The Beast delivered an impressive opening night for TUTS.  Based on the Disney production, it is thoroughly entertaining, with lively song and dance numbers, a live orchestra, stellar acting, lavish costumes, a multitude of mobile set pieces and scene changes, and even some fireworks.   In such a vibrant production, one can easily overlook some of the weakness in the singing.

The actors who played the principal characters make it unimaginable to picture anyone else in their roles.  Jaime Piercy is charming as Belle, the compassionate and self-assured heroine, and her voice is clear and expressive.  Likewise, the Beast, played by Peter Monaghan, of tall, imposing frame and lurching gait, captures well the tormented yet sincere character.  Rivaling Belle and the Beast as the most delightful pairing are Lumiere (Victor Hunter) – the flirtatious French candelabra, and Cogsworth (Steven Greenfield) – the uptight English grandfather clock, who complement one another with their impeccable comedic timing, and are also the two best wingmen a guy could have (referring to the scene where they coached the Beast through his romantic dinner date with Belle).  Hunter, with his exaggerated, voluptuous French accent, saunters through each scene with a swivel of his hips, while Greenfield, with his clipped English accent, shuffles adorably stiffly, like any walking grandfather clock might.  Completing the characters of the castle are Mrs. Potts (Sheryl Ann Wheaton), a most motherly teapot, sporting an English accent void of ‘h’, who pushes a cart carrying her teacup son, played by a very lively Bodhi Cutler, and Lauren Gula as Babette, the French feather duster and a flirtatious bait to Lumiere.

Victor Hunter as Lumiere and Steven Greenfield as Cogsworth. Photo © Tim Matheson.

Victor Hunter as Lumiere and Steven Greenfield as Cogsworth. Photo © Tim Matheson.

Dane Szohner leads the villagers as the hunky, ignorant and self-centred Gaston, and his characterisation is top-notch and hilarious.  Playing his side-kick Lefou is Nicholas Bradbury, who helplessly and loyally takes every punch and kick that Szohner is inclined to give (their acrobatic stunts are quite funny).  Though his character seemed over-exaggerated in the first scenes, he evolves as the necessary lead in the story’s secondary theme – a satire of an insular provincial town.  Natalia Mclaughlin, one of the three Silly Girls (she’s dressed in  yellow), is a real stand-out amongst the ensemble and who vividly personifies the town’s looniness.

Dane Szohner as Gaston,with the cast of Beauty and the Beast. Photo © Tim Matheson.

Dane Szohner as Gaston,with the ensemble. Photo © Tim Matheson.

But, the real reason to see this is its showy song and dance numbers.  It fills the stage with can-can lines of dancing dinnerware, ballerinas en pointe, a tango, tap dancing, playful duels and a most acrobatic floor rug.  So even though some solos struggle with vocal range, their voices are clear and the ensemble is lively, and you should most certainly ‘be their guest’ for a night.

Jennifer Gillis as Maria and Matt Montgomery as Tony. Photo © Tim Matheson

Jennifer Gillis as Maria and Matt Montgomery as Tony. Photo © Tim Matheson

In a more dramatic turn, West Side Story, based on the original Broadway production, swells with emotions in this timeless tale of love and hate.

Undeniably, Jennifer Gillis is stellar as Maria.  She has a clear, sweet and resonating voice that demands to be heard on bigger stages, and her characterisation was superb.  Opposite her, Matt Montgomery, as Tony, was an adequate match, and together, they create a world too innocent for the hate that surrounds them.

In the Jets camp, all actors are strong.  Daniel James White is a solid Riff, as is William Edward Hutchinson as Action, and particularly Sarah Vickruck, in the role of Anybodys – each captures unique characters within the gang.

Daniel James White as Riff, with the cast of West Side Story. Photo © Tim Matheson

Daniel James White as Riff, and the ensemble. Photo © Tim Matheson

The Sharks too, hold their own, including Alen Dominguez, as Bernardo, and Kai Bradbury as Chino, whose quiet torment after Bernardo’s murder adds depth to the conflict.  Alexandra Lainfiesta is enrapturing in her portrayal of Anita, who expresses the complexity of the story’s conflict through her struggle with her own rational perspective while empathising with Maria’s love-struck innocence.

Much of West Side Story is told through dance – the concept for this musical came from the famous choreographer and dancer, Jerome Robbins, who choreographed its memorable numbers like ‘Cool‘, danced by the Jets, with its iconic jump of both knees tucked up to the chest and arms stretched down along the body.  In this TUTS production, Vancouver choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg creates her own.

Her big ensemble numbers are as much visual spectacle as expressive interpretations of the story.  In the dance at the gym, Friedenberg choreographs a saucy dance-off between Latin-inspired moves for the Sharks and swing dance moves for the Jets; her choreography maintains distinct vocabulary for the two groups throughout the show.  In ‘America‘, the Puerto Rican ladies playfully mock one another with exaggerated gestures while comparing the virtues of America and Puerto Rico.  The most touching number is the finale.  The ensemble returns dressed in white, dancing in pairs to evoke the scene at the gym.  It is a poignant self-reflection of the start of this tragic story.  Instead of being at odds with one another, the pairs move slowly and tenderly through partnered lifts, and when one leans off-balance, the other catches him or her protectively.

Jennifer Gillis as Maria and the ensemble. Photo © Tim Matheson

Jennifer Gillis as Maria and the ensemble. Photo © Tim Matheson

However, it is difficult to measure up to Robbins’ irreplaceable choreography for ‘Cool‘.  The feeling of suppressed tension isn’t as pronounced in Friedenberg’s choreography, even though the deep pliés and nimble steps are clean and calm.  Further distraction came from the live orchestra, which intruded the scene with a jaunty tempo, and the instrumentation seemed too boisterous (maybe the brass is too loud?).  The same distracted from the sentimentality of the show’s big number, ‘Tonight‘.

The sets and costumes stay true to the original production.  Versatile metal grid-like frames allude to staircases along the side of Manhattan apartment buildings, serve as playground equipment and then as clothing racks in the ladies’ dress shop.  Actors add graffiti on the backdrop throughout the story, writing phrases that poetically capture the essence of each scene.

So which show to see?  Both Beauty And The Beast and West Side Story are impressive productions.  TUTS runs until August 20th, so you have time to see both!