In the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's ingenious new production of Beauty & the Beast, the first things to catch your eye are a small bench located stage right and a large screen - it's nearly half the length of the stage - hanging upstage. On that screen is a rear projection of a rose, and it has a haunting, rough-edged quality; it looks like something that French waif on the Les Miz poster should be holding.

These are the first things you notice about the Beauty & the Beast set because they're the only things on the Beauty & the Beast set; with the very occasional exception of a few other set pieces, what you see at the beginning is what you'll get.

Thankfully, considering the venue's limited amount of stage space, director Jay Berkow and his design team know they can't replicate Disney's opus in its original grandeur, and so they've gone the complete opposite route, opting for a minimalist conception that suggests more than it shows.

The screen, in fact, becomes essential to CAST's production. Throughout the show, a series of rear projections will establish the musical's various settings and give the illusion of scene changes, and it's used rather brilliantly in the openings of both Acts I and II, as the actors' expository action - the prince falling under the enchantress' spell, Belle being attacked by wolves - is performed in silhouette while the lighting and sound suggest fairy-tale terrors. Berkow's knowledgeable use of his space is commendable, and it's a testament to the creativity, cleverness, and undeniable performance skills of the Showboat gang that this production is as good as it is; their Beauty and the Beast might be lacking opulence, but you'd be surprised by how little that bothers you.

This less-is-more approach does have built-in limitations because, let's face it, there are times when you desperately want it to be grand. "Belle" and "Be Our Guest," for instance, are well-staged numbers but not quite the knockouts they should be, and I found myself missing elements of the show I love; I was bummed at losing Belle's and Beast's first lavish dinner together, with Beast lapping up his soup like a kitten at its saucer. There are also moments that, for younger audiences especially, might prove confounding; Gaston's Act II comeuppance was, given the show's minimalist bent, imaginative, but considering how hateful the character becomes, it wasn't very satisfying, and it left a few audience members giggling.

Yet these are the prices you occasionally pay when a venue isn't big enough to accommodate the production it's housing, and when a show is as continually engaging as this Beauty & the Beast is - in terms of both theatrical finesse and performance - it's churlish to complain. The opening-night audience applauded mightily at the big production numbers, with their gloriously goofy costumes, but I, for one, would have been equally thrilled if CAST had decided to ditch the music altogether and present Beauty & the Beast as a straight play; the actors remind you that, in addition to that terrific score (beautifully performed here by an orchestra of eight), Disney's production is beloved because of the affection you have for the characters.

As was to be expected, the cast boasts sensational, comedic character actors whose speed and confidence is a delight. Patrick Stinson, as Lumiere, and Michael Oberfield, as Cogsworth, have the polished timing of a classic vaudevillian team - Oberfield stares at the insouciant Stinson with hysterical, withering contempt - and Nicole Horton (playing the Wardrobe) is so assured that she doesn't have to do much at all to garner, and absolutely earn, applause. Chris Amos, too, is staggeringly funny as Gaston, drunk on self-love and working his eyebrows with cartoonish glee. (Berkow's staging of "Gaston," with the stage crowd attempting to cheer the weepy oaf up, is positively inspired.)

But the success of any Beauty & the Beast lies in its Beauty and the Beast, and this production is graced by the extraordinarily fine Katherine Walker Hill and Christopher Swan in the title roles. Hill exudes sweetness, of course, but shows such dramatic and comedic savvy that her Belle becomes a much tougher, tastier cookie than you might expect, and Swan is intensely physical, moving, funny, and downright sexy - imagine Hugh Jackman as a singing Wolverine, and you'll have a fair indication of how exhilarating this performance is. (The show's best moments lie in Belle and Beast's angry outbursts and battles of wits, and Hill and Swan both emerge victorious.) Adroitly produced and vibrantly acted, this final production of CAST's absolutely marvelous 2005 season is, despite the limited space on the Showboat stage, a divine send-off - a Beast with real bite.

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