By Mary Boyle
The classic story of Beauty and the Beast is all the rage right now, thanks to Emma Watson taking a turn as Belle in Disney's new live action version of their 1991 animated hit; however, long ago, before Disney got a hold of it, the story was a French fairy tale called La Belle et la Bête, which made its first appearance in print in the 18th Century, and inspired an opera by the name of Zémire et Azor, which is making a timely appearance at Skylight Music Theatre through March 26th.
Written by Jean-François Marmontel, with music by André Ernest Modeste Grétry, this opera from 1771 has remained a favorite for audiences of all ages, and Director James Ortiz has added a very special twist to this production.
“We have created a true spectacle, a visual feast, featuring giant-size puppetry to tell this fairy tale,” said Ortiz. “At its core, Beauty and the Beast is a rollicking evening of great music, magic and heart, with moments of real poignancy and tenderness. We have infused our production with vivid sets, elaborate costumes, compelling dance, and enormous puppets to transport the audience to another world where the power of love can break a curse.”
To make the opera even more accessible to today's audiences, Skylight's music director, Shari Rhoads, and director/designer, Ortiz, have done their own translation of the original French into English, except for Zémire’s famous aria, Air de la Fauvette, which remains in its original language.
Zémire (Gillian Hollis) is the youngest daughter of a wealthy, widowed merchant named Sander (Eric McKeever). While her older sisters, Fatme (Erin Sura) and Lisbe (Sarah Thompson Johansen), demand gifts from their father whenever he returns home, Zémire asks for nothing; when her father insists, she asks only for a rose. Sander and his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak), lose their ship at sea and are driven to a seemingly abandoned castle to seek shelter from the storm. When Sander picks a rose for his youngest daughter, he is confronted by Azor (Chaz'men Williams-Ali), the beast, who demands that Sander give his youngest daughter to pay for his thievery, but that she must come willingly. Sander returns to his daughters empty-handed, except for the rose for Zémire, intending only to bid farewell to his daughters, and then to sacrifice himself to the beast, but Zémire learns of Azor's demand, and she forces Ali to bring her to the castle.
This particular production is an excellent example of Skylight Style: "bringing fresh approaches or interesting twists to music theatre works; creating meaningful connections, not only between the characters on stage, but with the audience, as well." The massive form of Azor is an impressive, and endearing, piece of puppetry, while Gillian Hollis, as Zemire, looks as if she stepped right out of a Renaissance painting. Nicholas Nestorak, as Ali, gets all of the laughs, while the sisters get all the animosity. The beautiful Cabot Theatre enhances the elaborate set design and costumes, and the voices of the performers and music of the live orchestra are pure magic. Drama, romance, comedy -- audiences will find it all in Skylight's Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor) runs through Sunday, March 26th in the Cabot Theatre, located at 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee. Tickets are available at the Box Office, by calling (414) 291-7800, or online at http://www.skylightmusictheatre.org.
About Skylight Music Theatre
Since the beginning, Skylight Music Theatre has established a reputation for broad and adventuresome repertoire, encompassing baroque opera, European operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, Broadway musicals, contemporary chamber operas, and original musical revues. This tantalizing mix of repertoire fulfills the mission of the Skylight, which is to bring the full spectrum of musical theatre works to a wide and diverse audience in celebration of the musical and theatrical arts and their reflection of the human condition.