Before Disney put "Beauty and the Beast" on the musical theater stage, the prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn had a go at it in an odd little musical called "Dreams From a Summer House," which is receiving its area premiere at Columbia's Rep Stage.
Ayckbourn's approach, with serviceable music by John Pattison, is part British sitcom, part fairy tale, part romantic comedy and part musical. Because it tries to be so many things at once, it's probably not surprising that it doesn't excel at any of them.
It is, however, a diverting evening, somewhat more sophisticated than Disney but considerably less than "Into the Woods," Stephen Sondheim's revisionist look at fairy tales.
Characters need a reason to sing in musicals, and Ayckbourn has found a neat solution to that often tricky problem. His central plot device is that a well-to-do but romantically troubled British family is visited by the fairy-tale characters of "Beauty and the Beast." It turns out, however, that the fairy-tale folks can only communicate through song. They can neither understand spoken English nor speak it them- selves.
Unfortunately, Beauty, or as she is called here, Belle, takes a little too long arriving on the scene. Before she shows up, we have to sit through lots of tedious chatter about a garden party. And after the Beast enters the picture, there's so much switching back and forth between the British garden and the Beast's castle that you begin to feel you're watching a tennis match.
Director Nick Olcott's initial pacing doesn't help the show's slow start, although his two leading ladies bring a lot of spunk to the proceedings. As Belle, wide-eyed Susan Wheeler, a trained opera singer, has a voice so lovely, you wonder why she'd even want to speak.
On the other hand, Peggy Yates delivers the production's most amusing performance as Amanda, the abrasively unhappy newlywed who is kidnapped by the Beast. Amanda, it seems, is tone-deaf, and when she is forced to sing by the Beast (Scott Sedar), her off-key efforts are a hoot.
The other cast members deliver mostly accomplished performances -- Richard Bradbury as Amanda's ex-husband, a male chauvinist book illustrator whose work on "Beauty and the Beast" is the device that leads to Belle's arrival; Brian McMonagle as Amanda's wimpy new bridegroom; and Mary Ellen Nester and Arthur Laupus as Amanda's upper-class parents.
As a tomboy with a crush on the illustrator, however, A.K. Brink's portrayal is limited to an extended sulk. (Nor does it help that the big song she sings to Belle is performed straight out at the audience, as if Belle weren't even there.)
Then again, "Dreams From a Summer House" isn't exactly deep, insightful material. The mortals learn a lesson from their fairy-tale counterparts and vice versa. The lesson is basically to practice kindness and take the time to appreciate what -- and who -- is around you. It's not a big message, but this isn't a big musical -- just a minor, pleasant one. And, oh yes, everyone lives happily ever after.
'Dreams From a Summer House'
Where: Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
Pub Date: 3/23/99