Story: A young prince in a distant land in the past is handsome and wealthy but also arrogant and selfish. When he turns away a haggard-looking old woman who begs him sanctuary for the night, she casts a spell on him.

He is turned into a hideous beast and told he will stay that way until a single rose given to him by the witch loses its last petal. If he hasn’t learned to love someone by then, and have that love reciprocated, he will forever remain as he is. That also applies to the members of his staff, who are turned into objects such as a clock, a tea kettle, etc.

A bright young woman named Belle in a nearby village is being pursued by Gaston, the vain, self-absorbed bully of the hamlet who is idolized by other women but unwanted by the indifferent Belle. When Belle’s inventor father becomes lost in the forest, he seeks refuge at the Beast’s castle, where he then is held captive. Belle soon finds him and convinces the Beast to exchange her father for herself, becoming the Beast’s prisoner.

As time goes by, the confused Beast slowly wins over Belle’s admiration and love, but the rose continues to wither away. Running out of time, the Beast surrenders his heart to Belle even as he is forced to battle the duplicitous Gaston, who takes out his anger at Belle’s rebuffing on the unsuspecting Beast.

Highlights: Once again, director Lara Teeter draws upon a wide talent base to present a polished, poised production of a family musical to benefit Variety the Children’s Charity. Utilizing top-notch professionals as well as integrating children of all abilities into the show’s cast, Teeter and company presented a smart, clever and heartwarming production high on energy and entertainment as well as heart at UMSL last weekend.

Other Info: Since 1932 Variety the Children’s Charity has served children from infancy to age 21 with physical and developmental disabilities in the St. Louis region. Variety focuses on five core areas to help kids become independent and productive: gifting medical equipment for mobility and independence; developing unique educational and recreational programs; funding therapy and Sunshine Coach Vans.

For the eighth consecutive year Variety Children’s Theatre has raised funds with an annual musical production overseen by professionals who also introduce children to the exciting world of theater, both on stage and behind the scenes.

Tony Award-nominee Teeter has directed each of the Variety Children’s Theatre presentations and also served as choreographer for Beauty and the Beast. Most impressive is how Teeter melds children with disabilities into such sweeping numbers as Be Our Guest near the close of Act I, where the kids were dressed to the nines in resplendent costumes designed by Robert Fletcher as cutlery, salt and pepper shakers, place mats, etc.

Dunsi Dai took advantage of the spacious Touhill Center stage to provide a series of handsome painted backdrops as well as a fine rendering of the Beast’s dimly lit castle, augmented with John Wylie’s persuasive lighting. Rusty Wandall added bits of explosive thunder in his sound design, while Greg Schweizer and his orchestra provided a beautiful reading of the show’s lush score.

The music was written by composer Alan Menken, while Howard Ashman and Tim Rice collaborated on the clever lyrics. Linda Woolverton wrote the tidy book based on an 18th century fairy tale by French writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and the 1991 Disney animated movie.

Jason Michael Evans made for an impressive Beast, showing the character’s vulnerability as well as his steely disposition in convincing fashion. He played quite well off of Kaitlyn Mayse’s Belle, an independent lass who yearns to see the world beyond her tiny village and who uses her love of reading to transport the curious Beast along with her. Mayse’s superb voice shaped a number of the show’s tunes with beauty and grace.

Veteran area performers Whit Reichert and Alan Knoll excelled as Belle’s whacky dad Maurice and Cogsworth, the clock and imperious head of the Beast’s household respectively, maximizing the humor in their characters. Local actress Leah Berry shined in the role of the charming Mrs. Potts and young Keira Cromwell did nicely as the teakettle’s son-turned-cup, Chip.

There was splendid work by Drew Humphrey as the engaging valet-turned-candelabra Lumiere, a gallant French sort who loves to court the coquettish Babette, played charmingly by Dena DiGiacinto, and by Joy Boland as the flamboyant opera diva-turned-dresser Madame de la Grande Bouche.

Local favorite Ken Page used his dulcet-toned voice as the Narrator to describe the story’s beginning. Nathaniel Hackmann displayed his comic talents as the oafish Gaston, as did Ryan Jacobs as Gaston’s timid sycophant LeFou, recipient of a variety of slaps accentuated with Wandall’s amusing sounds and well-timed fight choreography. Gaston’s trio of swooning female admirers were amusingly etched by Chandler Ford, Melissa Gerth and Allison Newman, and local performer Will Bonfiglio was a properly conniving Monsieur D’Arque.

Contributing to the overall excellence of this year’s show were Geoffrey Alexander, Dustin Crumbaugh, Cole Hoefferle, Brian Horton, Austin Jacobs, Liam Johnson, Matt Redmond and Jack Sippel as a menacing and tightly choreographed pack of wolves. Crumbaugh doubled as the Young Prince and Dawn Gilbertson was fine as the disguised enchantress who punishes the prince for his lack of charity.

Teeter has a knack for showcasing the talents of dozens of performers on the Touhill stage without having dances seem forced or cluttered. Among those lending their talents were an adult ensemble including Caroline Adams, Alexander, Bonfiglio, Crumbaugh, Eileen Engel, Ford, Gerth, Gilbertson, Austin Jacobs, Johnson, Newman, Miranda Payne, Erin Warner Prange, Redmond, Darrius Roberts, Mark Saunders, Sippel, Corbyn Sprayberry, Mariah Studebaker and Kyle Twomey.

The teen ensemble included Rachel Bloom, Mollie Carter, Meghan Concagh, Kaci Conley, Alexander Eichholz, Gracie Gibson, Eddy Hahn, Rachel Haselhorst, Cole Hoefferle, Brian Horton, Gracie Kelley, Isabella Koster, Adair Lindenmayer, Sydney Mitchell, Emily Moranville, Brendan Morris, Abbie Mueller, Cara Palombo, Nico Del Pietro, Natalie Scheers and Annie Williams.

Members of the kids ensemble were Ellie Baclesse, Isabella Behrle, Julianna Busse, Greta Clark, Holly Connor, Gabe Cytron, Marcus Davis, Isabella Devine, Olivia Eaker, Carter Eiseman, Lacey Fowler, Nick George, Naomi Harris, Selah Harris, Madeline Hewgley, Olivia Kallaos, Gigi Koster, Phoebe McFarland, Kaitlyn Patrick, Morgan Patrick, Madison Proctor, Makenzie Ruebel, Katherine Teeter, Katie Beth Terrill and Lenore Upwood.

Jan Albus once again lent her talents as executive producer, with Mark Krupinski as associate producer, Larry Pry as assistant director, Emilee Buchheit as the tireless stage manager and Sean Savoie as production manager.

Production team members included Pete Messineo, Ray Martin, Janice Kemper, Scott Loebl, Julie Hankley, Miranda Payne, Marty Strohmeyer, Jill Kranzberg, Josh Swan, Greg Stone, Jay Shastri, Cristy Sifford, Kate Spaulding, Joy Addler, Katie An Siegel, Jason Whicker, Mary Senciboy, Grace Austin, Aria Grosvenor, Jessica Stevens, John Eric Driskill, Wyatt Roberts, Marion Ayers, Zackary Fiudo and child assistants Alyssa Bengston, Mariah Broeker, Grace Knight, Barb Kramer, Bridgette Kusack, Julia Roberts, JJ Shastri and Kate Warden.

As you can see, it takes a theatrical village to put on a show as comprehensive and as polished as the annual Variety Children’s Theatre musical. Teeter and his cohorts succeed not only in helping shape a youngster’s passion for story-telling but also in building self-esteem and self-confidence. There’s nary a beast in that beauty of a mission.

Musical: Beauty and the Beast

Company: Variety Children’s Theatre

Venue: Touhill Performing Arts Center, UMSL

Dates: Run concluded

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of ProPhotoSTL