REVIEW — After a devastating season last year when it had to cancel all of its “Broadway in the Canyon” productions, Tuacahn Center for the Arts, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, brings back two crowd-pleasing favorites “Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Both shows were scheduled for last season and whether it was good fortune or wise planning, it makes perfect sense for Tuacahn to attempt its challenging comeback with two low-risk, battle-tested shows, and it appears the strategy will pay off, because both shows offer some of the highest production value in the outdoor amphitheater’s history.
Are there many die-hard theater fans that haven’t seen these shows before? Probably not.
Does Tuacahn make a compelling case to re-visit these familiar stories? Absolutely.
As the little curly red-headed pre-teen orphan living in post-depression New York City, Lydia Ricks sparkles in the title role and she’s aided by some talented orphan sidekicks and a terrific Michael Scott Harris as the booming-baritoned billionaire with a “B,” Oliver Warbucks.
What makes this particular production so spirited and big-hearted is in large measure how brilliantly Director/Choreographer Mara Newberry Greer cuts the expansive Tuacahn stage down in size, allowing the many intimate moments to shine, often as smaller vignettes featured downstage — then transferring the action to the larger main stage while adding ensemble members, giving the big numbers (“It’s a Hard Knock Life,” “N.Y.C.,””I Don’t Need Anything But You”) added punch.
This “downsizing” also brings out the individual talents and personalities of the other orphans which often get lost in large stage productions and Annie’s six accomplices are simply adorable and more importantly as talented as any young performers you’ll see.
Another particular noteworthy performance is by Terra C. Macleod who seems to be channeling Bette Davis in her hilariously diva-esque portrayal of orphanage boss Miss Hannigan. This staging appears to favor audiences who are in Center/Left and the Left sections.
“Beauty and the Beast”
Speaking of inspired staging, third time’s a charm for Tuacahn’s current version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” which had its debut at the amphitheater in 2005 saw a much-improved version in 2015 and now returns in a simply breathtaking production that should impress even the most cynical patron.
Director Michael Heitzman also reduces the size of the Tuacahn stage by having the over-sized, majestic castle set pieces placed closer to the audience giving the moments with the primary characters a more intimate feel (it is still recommended to have young ones sit as close as possible). The set itself is a truly brilliant combination of old-school painted backdrops, portable, quick- moving set pieces and digital projections.
They all serve as they should to keep the focus on arguably the best book in the Disney canon – a “tale as old as time” about a Beast (Nathaniel Hackmann) who must learn to love his provincial captive Belle (Crystal Kellogg) in order to reverse a magic spell before the final rose pedal falls. The more “mature” cast brings a refreshing, seasoned approach to each character, never slipping into caricature or silliness. Kellogg’s vocals soar in all the right places, while Hackmann’s conversational approach to “If I Can’t Love Her” that closes Act One is simply stunning.
Special kudos on the night I saw the show to Regan Featherstone who was perfectly pompous in his understudy performance of “Gaston.” The spectacle of showstopper moments like “Gaston,” “Be Our Guest” and “Human Again,” are as beautiful and well-choreographed by Robbie Roby as any you will see. Most rewarding of all is the palpable chemistry between Belle and her Beast that provides several heart-tugging moments even for those who’ve seen this three decades old warhorse countless times.
With a visual splendor this superb (check out the backlighting in the ubiquitous castle windows) and the performances to match, it’s not a stretch to say that for many, Tuacahn’s “Beauty and the Beast” will become the definitive version of this beloved show.
Considering the fact that Tuacahn was forced to implement incredibly costly, extremely restrictive safety protocols (while masks are required for entry, only a minority in the audience wear them) in order to get their season started on-time, “Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast” are impressive accomplishments and signal the theater is not only back but is poised for plenty of sunny tomorrows.
“Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast” run weekly (through July 10 and Oct. 23 respectively) with ticket prices ranging from $32 to $113. Children under 3 are not permitted. Visit Tuacahn.org or contact 435-652-3300 for tickets and information.
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