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Wheelock intimately animates Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast'

In Wheelock Family Theatre's "Beauty and the Beast," Angela Williams gives the bookish Belle a vivid personality -- warm, inquisitive, spunky, and compassionate.

The Wheelock Family Theatre has transformed Disney's fantastical animated classic "Beauty and the Beast " into one of its most lively musical productions in recent memory. One of the themes of the story is "stay true to yourself," and under the enlightened guidance of director Jane Staab , the Wheelock has done just that.

It's awfully hard to compete with the magical, unfettered imagination of animation, and the touring big-budget Broadway production featuring over-the-top theatrical wizardry that has hit town a couple of times. But Wheelock does what it does best, trading spectacle for intimacy and charm, often working the aisles to put the audience right in the middle of the action. The resulting production is completely engaging and well-paced over the course of roughly 2 1/2 hours.

With its memorable score, clever lyrics, and resonant story, the show itself is hard not to like. A loyal, courageous young heroine learns to look beyond first impressions, and a bestial hero learns through love to be "Human Again."

But a large part of the strength of this particular production is the pitch-perfect casting. Angela Williams is a star in the making. With her expressive face and physicality, she gives the bookish Belle a vivid personality -- warm, inquisitive, spunky, yet compassionate. She has a glowing luster to her singing voice reminiscent of many Disney heroines. Her upper range is clear and bell-like, her lower register natural and unforced with an effective use of dynamic and nuance.

Christopher Chew made an excellent Gaston , clueless, virile and arrogant, but slightly less venal than in other portrayals, giving the role an effective trace of subtlety. Gary Thomas Ng was cartoonishly hysterical as his sidekick Lefou , and Mansür gave a nicely calibrated performance as Belle's father, Maurice .

The enchanted characters were uniformly delightful: Gamalia Pharms as the nurturing Mrs. Potts and adorable first-grader Jeffrey Sewell as her son Chip; veteran Robert Saoud as the randy, French-accented Lumiere ; Chip Phillips as the finicky Cogsworth ; Lisa Korak as the flirtatious Babette ; and Jeanine Belcastro as the operatic diva turned into a wardrobe.

The Beast is a trick to pull off as not only fearsome, but comical and sympathetic as well. Doug Jabara was more effective with the Beast's second-act transformation than in the opening, where the pain and anger of his situation was revealed mostly through bluster. He was less scary than the mob incited to "Kill the beast!", though the ensuing battle was all Marx Brothers' zaniness. The beast's pivotal "death" scene was the only place one missed what theatrical gimmickry could have afforded. Staged atop the small attic platform, it was stiffly melodramatic, though his sleight of hand resurrection as the Prince was smoothly done.

Anita Fuchs' set design was streamlined and effective, with some delightful touches, such as Maurice's fanciful wheeled contraption. Matthew T. Lazure's vivid costumes were first rate, from the townspeople's peasant clothing to the imaginative creations for the castle's enchanted inhabitants. And given the obvious disparity in dancing skills among the excellent chorus, Laurel Stachowicz choreographed some rousing production numbers. With its precision glass-clunking maneuvers, the tavern scene was a hoot.