Once again, the University of Utah's Young People's Theatre introduces good theatre to Salt Lake elementary schoolchildren. In this, the final offering of the school year, Laine Steel has adapted the classic fairy tale of "Beauty and the Beast" into a fanciful and entertaining play.
"Beauty and the Beast," is a rather complicated story of a beast who lives in a castle and obtains, by threatening her father's life, a beautiful woman to live with him. He is kind to her. When she finally decides to marry him, her loyalty lifts the spell of his ugliness. He becomes her handsome prince charming. Happily ever after is implied.
Literal-minded children will ask many unanswerable questions during this play (such as "Why does the beast live in a castle?" and "Who turned him into a monster?" and "Why?"). You will do yourself favor to reread the story before you go so they don't get hung up on the minor points. (Children who have had Junior Great Books classes in their school may already be familiar with the plot.)
Even when they know the story, children will still have questions during the play because Steel has chosen to amplify the more mysterious and symbolic aspects of the plot.
Thus, while his production of "Beauty and the Beast" is rich and enjoyable even for adults, it may be a bit confusing for younger children.
Jette Halladay plays Beauty and Mark White is the lumbering Beast. Don Fleming is Beauty's papa and Melinda Ness is her sister Annie. All four actors bring depth to the characters. Beauty is kind and responsible - but she does get exasperated with her selfish sister. And while Annie is often selfish, she is sometimes contrite as well.
Seth Olson and Kristy Taylor are Theatre School for Youth students (as is Melinda Ness) and play invisible, magical spirits.
The play raises many questions for family discussion. You could talk about whether the father was wrong to take a rose from the Beast's garden, for instance. Or you could ask children what Beast meant when he told the father that just because the old man had suffered misfortunes, he should not have let that rob him of his honor.
The most salient point of the fairy tale is that the Beast was a good and trustworthy creature, even though he wasn't nice to look at. (Parents have probably used this story to make the beauty-is-only-skin-deep point for centuries.)
It is around the character of Beast that Steel weaves most of his mystery, however, so parents may have to re-emphasize the point that Beast is trustworthy and good despite his skin problems.
Beast can light a fire by snapping his fingers. He can look into a bowl and see what's happening in the next county. But when he tells Beauty he locks her into her room at night to protect her from his own dark impulses and when she sees a picture that may or may not be him and may or may not be handsome - Beast's character becomes unnecessarily complex.
That's a minor point about a play that is, for the most part, a joy to watch unfold. I liked watching Halladay and White slowly become more comfortable with each other. At first they avoided each other's face. Eventually they were dancing together and finding the rhythm in their relationship that they couldn't find with words or glances.
The set was interesting and not too spooky. Nor was the Beast's face. If preschoolers have a problem with "Beauty and the Beast," it won't be because it's too scary or too long (about 1 1/2 hours) but because the storyline is sophisticated.