The monster in the Durango High School production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is so grotesque, a dozen horns sprout from his back. Deformed and angry, the Beast snarls like a desperate animal in pain. Portrayed with convincing authority by baritone Curtis Salinger, this interpretation of the famous folkloric beast would repulse anyone.
But not a smart, independent village girl like Belle. Played by the wonderful mezzo-soprano Rebekah Fowler, Belle personifies resilience. When the Beast imprisons her father (an endearing Egan Lindsay), Belle sacrifices herself to free him. Belle’s imprisonment and subsequent transformation breaks the spell put on the Beast.
Director Benjamin Mattson and his team have outdone themselves once again. Working from scratch, Mattson’s crew maximized the wide DHS stage to suggest a French village, Belle’s cottage, a spooky forest and the Beast’s elegantly dark castle. Mattson credited everyone but himself for both the design concept and execution of set, lighting, sound and costume design. Several team members have strongly asserted that Mattson created and drove the whole caravan. The ever-reliable Tom Kyser shaped the music and conducted the large student orchestra.
The story’s archetypal simplicity has spoken to people over the centuries. Its colorful history dates back to Roman mythology and forwarded by French storytellers. First codified by a woman writer, La Belle et La Bête, was published in 1740. Fifteen years later, another French writer trimmed the tale and published a shorter version that included the backstory about an arrogant prince, a spell, his agony and his rescue.
Variants exist all over the world: Russia, Denmark, China, where the beast is not a true monster, but a sacrifice by a woman must be made to transform him into a decent human being. The most famous English version was published in 1889 by Andrew Lang. It served as inspiration for several movies, including Disney’s animated classic in 1991. Its transformation into a Broadway musical three years later spawned high schools and colleges to produce the show, including Mona Wood-Patterson here in Durango, and now again by Mattson.
Above all, “Beauty and the Beast” is an ancient male-female trope about taming brutishness, power and egregious appetite. If it hasn’t occurred to you already, the tale connects us to two principal players who will soon inhabit the White House as first lady and the president. But I digress.
Mattson and Co. have chosen to open the production with a screen image of a book and a voice-over – as a fairy tale. Then the story unfolds with a focus on Belle as a studious outsider in a small village. Her nemesis, Gaston (portrayed with arrogant assurance by Shane Minerich), both mocks and pursues her, followed by hilarious groupies, girls perpetually dressed for the prom and La Fou (the comically elastic Braden Helfrich). The competing domains of high school life are made vivid by costume, choreography and song.
Inside the other domain, the Beast’s castle, the life-and-death drama plays out. The Beast’s prisoners are also trapped, led by Lumiere (Colson Parker, a natural comic) and Mrs. Potts (the terrific singer/actor Hope Frihauf). Mattson’s huge cast has too many players to name, but all bring energy and focus to their roles.
Finally, kudos to Mattson for writing a lucid Director’s Note in the program. Would that every high school or college director do the same.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.