Ordway Center executives promised that the St. Paul venue's big holiday production of "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" would be, as TikTokers like to say, straight fire, meaning amazing. They just didn't expect the show to literally set the Ordway stage alight.
It happened in the climactic scene about 10 minutes before "Beauty" ended at Saturday's press opening. Somehow, as villain Gaston led the pitchfork- and torch-wielding townspeople to hunt the Beast, a fire ignited at center stage. While Gaston (Regan Featherstone) tangled with the Beast (Nathaniel Hackmann) up in the castle, a heroic stagehand rushed in to put out the flames below.
Still, to paraphrase poet Nikki Giovanni, this "Beauty" is so enchanting that even its errors are correct. The accidental flames, which looked like they could have been part of the action, will no doubt add to this production's legend. (And yes, the Ordway has fixed the fire mishap.)
"Beauty" elaborates on an old trope. Similar stories about a pretty princess marrying an animal who then turns into a prince (ahem) are found from Asia ("The Fairy Serpent") to Africa ("The Snake With Five Heads") to the Middle East ("The Snake Prince") and beyond.
In the 1994 Disney musical, composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and a book by Linda Woolverton, an Enchantress (Andrea Mislan) transforms a rude prince into a two-legged warthog. The only way for the Beast, and other half-human, half-things in the castle become human again is through the love of a princess. Enter Belle, the answer to their suspended thing-imation.
The Ordway, which hosts both touring Broadway and produces its own Broadway-caliber shows, put on a pretty "Beauty" in 2009. But this version, also homegrown, is a highwater mark for the venue. Almost everything about Michael Heitzman's jaw-droppingly arresting production is lavish — from Adam Koch's and Steven Royal's transporting castle to Ryan Moller's sumptuously eye-popping costumes.
Danny Troob's original orchestrations have been juiced up by music supervisor David Holcenberg — he of "MJ the Musical" fame — and are conducted with crispness and verve by Elise Santa. Robbie Roby's stylishly fetching choreography includes dancing dishes and tap dances with silver steins.
The stupendous work of the creative team is matched by extraordinary performances. Rajané Katurah is resplendent as Belle. A powerhouse belter with clear diction and a sparkle in her voice, Katurah makes it seem like the role was scripted especially for her, never mind that Toni Braxton, who also is African American, starred as Belle on Broadway in 1998 or that other high-wattage stars have played the role across the globe. Katurah soars at the Ordway, and her rendition of "A Change in Me," a reunion with her father, is but one showstopper.
Hackmann brings operatic gravitas to the Beast. With raw emotion and tremendous vocal prowess, he pours his heart into his own plea for change, carrying us deep into his craving to right-size into a tender, touching human again.
Featherstone and his muscles could play separate characters in "Beauty." The actor reads Gaston as an 18th-century meathead Elvis. And he gets a lot of folks shook up.
Other standouts include Max Wojtanowicz as Lumiere, the half-human, half-lamp who mines his lines for maximum humor and leads with grace on "Be Our Guest." Wojtanowicz has surefire chemistry with Jorie Ann Kosel, who plays Babette and with whom he nails some naughtily witty repartee.
The luminous cast includes Jamecia Bennett, who shines as Mrs. Potts, Thomasina Petrus as rococo Madame de la Grande Bouche, T. Mychael Rambo as Belle's spacy father, Maurice, and Rush Benson, who brings physical humor to Gaston sidekick Lefou.
There's a lot of magic in "Beauty," including with costume changes. But the most compelling thing about the production is not a trick at all. Through art, we enter a world and are kept there, enthralled. This "Beauty" creates a spark that can make believers of us all, if that fire can be safely managed.
'Disney's Beauty and the Beast'
What: Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Michael Heitzman.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat. & Sun. Ends Dec. 31.
Where: Ordway Center, 5th and Washington Sts., St. Paul.
Tickets: $35.50-$143.50. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.