Feb. 19 2014 12:00 AM

Disney fairytale paints by numbers for audience-pleasing spectacle

Courtesy photo

Wednesday, Feb. 19 — Not much has changed to “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” — playing through Sunday at the Wharton Center — since it debuted 20 years ago and inspired the resurgence of film-to-stage adaptations. Despite some clever illusions and overpowering musical numbers, the paint-by-numbers production never feels truly magical, and with nothing new to offer, it feels as trapped in the past as the denizens of the story’s enchanted castle. 

But try telling that to the kids in the audience opening night on Tuesday, who delighted at every overly projected pratfall and screamed punchline. Lesson learned: loud is FUNNY!

For the most part, the show’s problems are no fault of the actors. Hilary Maiberger adeptly inhabits the titular beauty, Belle; her clear, majestic voice filled every cube inch of the Wharton Center’s Great hall with grandeur. She is easily the production’s greatest asset. Likewise, Tim Rogan, who played the antagonist Gaston, strong-armed his way into audience esteem. His arched-eyebrow, curled-lip, baritone narcissism provided the bulk of the evening’s fun, even if his rapid transition from likable bad guy to full-on villain was a bit jarring.

Show-opener “Belle” and showstopper “Be Our Guest” are still the audience pleasers they were designed to be, and the title song was perfectly performed by Mrs. Potts (Kristin Stewart). For those moments, we were whisked back to a pre-CGI world where hand-drawn cels were the closest we could come to fantasy worlds.

However, the limits of live action performance were glaringly obvious. Some of the costumes were distractingly bizarre, to the point where you couldn’t really tell what some of the characters were supposed to be (were those scene-changing minions some kind of S&M gargoyles?) Beast (Darick Pead) never felt intimidating, physically or dramatically; he came across more like an overstuffed, cranky man-child. And a bit of repetitive business got quite tiresome — if the candelabra, Lumiere (Hassan Nazari-Robati),lit and snuffed his candlestick hands one more time, I was reaching for the closest fire extinguisher.

Broadway shows have evolved to become two-tier family events, with slapstick fun for the kids and wink-and-nod fun for the folks. “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t that kind of show — this one’s definitely aimed for younger set. The week’s performances are nearly sold out, but if you have tickets, you’re about to be parent of the week. You just can’t argue with the laughter of a child.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”

Wharton Center

7:30 p.m. Wednesday- Saturday, Feb. 19-22; 2 p.m. Sat., Feb. 22; 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23 $32-$87

(800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com