Phoenix Ensemble welcomed a packed house of eager Disney enthusiasts into the Tin Shed, who greeted the first chords of Beauty and the Beast’s overture with excited whoops and cheers. While many may have wondered how such a huge show could fit into such a tiny space, by night’s end, the cast and crew left little doubt that there may actually be nothing that this tiny company can’t put to stage.
Artistic Director Justin Tubb-Hearne picked a “monster’ of a show to settle into the chair with as both company and production leader, with huge set requirements, costumes that can’t be wrong, and audience expectations that have been hard forged since the movie came out in 1991. Ably assisted by AD Darcy Morris, Tubb-Hearne never missed a beat in bringing this fairytale to life.
From the moment the audience entered the theatre with orchestral Disney tunes playing in the background, an illuminated rose, and real-life gargoyles, the audience was tossed into a provincial French landscape full of wonder and enchantment. Tubb-Hearne’s clever set design used multi-hued curtains to whisk us between locations (combined with a killer lighting design by Keya Makar). This kept the story moving quickly and steered away from needing to bring too-large set pieces into the mix.
His blocking and overall pacing integrated well with choreography created by Amy-Rose Swindells (with AC Holly-Ann Doig), who kept the audience swaying along with her simple, but well executed, dance moves. Particular highlights were the full ensemble numbers ‘Gaston’ and ‘Be Our Guest’, that made excellent use of the large cast in such a small space.
Rounding out the production team was Benjamin Tubb-Hearne (with AMD Naomi Pattinasarany) with his always exceptional musical direction. His attention to detail, particularly with such complex and iconic Disney harmonies, was of stunningly high quality. While there were some issues with balance between the singers and the backing tracks used (sound design by Alysha Collie) this started to settle as the show progressed and will no doubt by perfected through the run.
It was pleasing to look through the programme and realise that every facet of the production team was supported by assistants to the main position. The Phoenix Ensemble should be credited for their dedication to further training and nurturing production talent.
As the titular Belle Manuao Madar was perfection. Her voice encapsulated everything that is a Disney princess, and her quiet, but fierce, portrayal of a girl seeking a more extraordinary life was well nuanced and realistic. Often a Disney princess is a hard role to play, they’re not given a lot to do and don’t have a huge range of character development, but Madar took the role and made it her own. She showed growth, and fully embraced the periods of hopelessness and despair, before finding the inner resilience that Belle had within her all along.
Beast to Madar’s Beauty, Michael Mills was in many ways softer than a lot of incarnations. Quieter and lacking some of the baritone snarl that might be expected. This did nothing to diminish the character, rather it made him quietly dangerous, and showed a deeper, much less certain side to the character shine through. His vocals on the iconic ‘If I Can’t Love Her’ were a sublime end to Act I.
The roles of the devilish duo Gaston and LeFou (Josh Nixon and Elliot Gough respectively) were played with pitch-perfect campness, huge physicalities, and a solid helping of overbearing testosterone. Vocally and physically Nixon dominated the space, never missing an opportunity to show off his muscles or let his inner beastliness shine through. As the adoring sidekick, Gough was charming and made such excellent use of the space around him, you could be forgiven for thinking there were two of him. Their combined presence lifted all of the scenes that they were in and pushed the action forward.
Stand out performance of the night must go to Jason Ianna as Lumiere. He was charming golden lothario, always kind but with a sharp rebuttal should the occasion call for it. He was extraordinarily generous with his energy in scenes, sharing, rather than dominating the space, especially in his scene work with Babette (Jaclyn Johnson) and Cogsworth (David Morris). Ianna managed a constant cheekiness that was endearing and was thoroughly reminiscent of the cartoon.
As Cogsworth, Morris brought frenetic energy to the role almost constantly. Sometimes bordering on a too-much pantomime version of the character. He was constantly over the top and pushed each of his scenes along smartly, but there lacked a sense of rigidness and stateliness that Cogsworth should have had as the majordomo, as tightly wound as he is. For all of that though, his energy and commitment are to be applauded, and his attention to detail when not the centre of attention was exceptional.
Carolyn Latter as Mrs Potts had such a stately charm to her performance that you could almost feel the warmth radiating off her like a comforting cup of tea. She gave a solid recreation of the iconic Angela Lansbury characterisation but definitely made it her own, with some fearsome side eye and an “I told you so” smile. What made her performance though, was post the second transformation, as she waited worriedly for Chip (Sam Johnson) to appear again. It happened in the background, but it was heartwarming to witness.
One could not have asked for a better, or more earnest, Chip than was portrayed by Sam Johnson. Despite being a performing face in a cup, trapped in a trolley, he was constantly alert and full of energy. The innocent naïveté he gave Chip when asking about love was heartwarming and drew an audible “aw” from the audience. Often a role that can be too easily overlooked, Johnson’s endearing smile, and honest performance brought us a gracious young Chip, and he will definitely be a young actor to watch in the future.
Phillipa Bowe made a meal of Madame de la Grande Bouche, flouncing around the stage, and hilariously appearing in full Viking regalia during the final battle scene. Her over the top diva dramatics were perfectly balanced to never steal focus, but to always be focussed should anyone be watching her in the background of the scene. It would have been all too easy to become “furniture” if you’ll pardon the pun.
The ensemble threw themselves into a dizzying array of costumes for this production, and while numerous for the shed, is in actuality a quite small ensemble for a full-scale production of Beauty and the Beast. They are to be commended for their high energy throughout all of their scenes, and their stunning full sound. Special commendations should be given to Victoria Sica and Simon Lyell for their acrobatics.
While the night progressed with some outstanding performances and an energy that was frankly contagious, there were a couple of moments that need addressing. These largely stem from the stage crew, led by Jacque Clark, some curtains that continuously weren’t pulled properly, and a scene change where absolutely everything that was being said behind the curtain could be heard over the top of the scene playing in front of it. These were unfortunate moments that detracted from an otherwise slick, and incredibly heartwarming, production.
With a classic Disney score and the unbridled enthusiasm of the entire cast and crew bouncing off the walls of the Tin Shed, Phoenix Ensemble’s production of Beauty and the Beast is one not to be missed. Tickets are selling faster than a rose losing its petals, so book quickly. For more information, and ticketing, visit https://www.phoenixensemble.com.au.