There's a reason why "Beauty and the Beast" is one of the biggest hit shows in the history of American theater.
It's simply great.
It's the kind of show that people who love musical theater love, and it's the kind of show that people who don't care about theater love. It's the kind of show that kids like and grown-ups like. You could probably even find an occasionally teenage boy or two who would like it.
The national tour just landed in Tampa on Tuesday -- it'll be there through Sunday -- and the production is a just as strong as the show itself.
The performances are all just delightful, from Jiliian Butterfield as Belle and Ryan Everett Wood as the Beast down through supporting roles, including the elastically physical Jordan Weagraff as Lefou and Tampa theater veteran Thomas Mothershed as Maurice.
"Beauty" was one of Alan Menken's early film scores, and arguably the one that established him as one of his era's best composers. From the rousing old-fashioned Broadway number "Be Our Guest" and the heartbreaking ballad "I Can't Love Her," the music's all gorgeous, and the lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice are all strong. The whole cast sings beautifully -- Butterfield wields a wide-ranging soprano voice that can hold a note 'til Christmas without a trace of vibrato -- and the 11-piece pit orchestra is phenomenal.
And, of course, the story is an ageless classic that can still move you, even through you know every plot twist from both the fairy tale and the Disney film, including the resolution. Linda Woolverton's book will make you laugh even more often than it will make get misty-eyed. But just as impressive as the story, the songs and the performances is the award-winning design work. Casual theater-goers often don't take much note of such elements as sets, lights and costumes, but in this show all those are so stunningly gorgeous that it's hard not to be bowled over.
The whole show was redesigned a few years back to make it more economical to tour around the world, but there's no evidence of any shortcuts. Sets are numerous and lovely, costumes are opulent and serve the characters and the story, and the lighting is evocative but unobtrusive, as lighting should be.
All in all, it's pretty close to flawless. Little kids in the opening-night audience stayed attentive through the show's three hours, grown men hid the occasional tear and everyone gave an enthusiastic standing ovation to the cast and the production.
Here's a little tidbit about the show for Bradenton theater fans: Christoff Marse, who starred in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" for Manatee Players just a few months back, has just been cast in the role of Maurice for the international tour. He'll joined the show in China in July.
Details: Through May 10, Morsani Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $35-$130 plus service charge. Information: 813-229-7827, strazcenter.org.