By JEFFREY ERIC JENKINS
There is an unwritten rule that professional theater critics do not participate in standing ovations at the end of performances.
To some extent, this is due to the "American Idol"-ization of this country, in which the end of a performance has become a signal for audiences to automatically jump to their feet and cheer.
It is gratifying to report that our local audiences — unlike their Broadway cousins — tend not to engage in such enthusiasms.
What to do, then, when the critic's 5-year-old daughter leaps to her feet and cheers during the curtain call for "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," now playing in the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College?
Grin and bear it.
This 14th annual Kathy Murphy Student Production of the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company showcases the diverse talent of young people who range in age from middle school to high school. It is a superb opportunity for 'tweens and teens to build their confidence and to explore the human experience as they mature.
Director Whitney Havice wrangles her cast of more than 30 young performers into a consistent narrative of this now-classic musical, which in 1993 established Disney as an anchor tenant in New York's Broadway theater district. Choreographer Ashley Giberson's pleasing work adds to the storytelling with well-organized choral numbers that include some ballet and tap.
Thursday's opening night was partly marred by body microphones that frequently popped, clicked and otherwise malfunctioned. It was a marvel of composure to witness these young performers soldiering on through the technical difficulties without seeming to miss a beat. A rolling scenery piece also malfunctioned, which seemed to change the dramatic composition of a scene. But these things happen on Broadway, too.
Of particular note was the performance of Emmy Daniels as Belle, the young girl who "tames" a literal beast of a man. Daniels has a powerful voice and delivers the emotional impact of dramatic moments with significant force.
Jerry Strain, who plays the Beast, conveys the humanity that lies beneath the character's gruff exterior. Belle gets involved with the Beast when she goes to his enchanted castle to rescue her beloved father, Maurice (Kabriel Schuster).
The magic spell cast upon the Beast has turned his staff into a grandfather clock, a candelabra, a teapot, a broken cup and any number of dancing plates and silverware. Roger Holben (Cogsworth), Josiah Zielke (Lumière), Emma Loewenstein (Babette), Natalie Deptula (Mrs. Potts), Abigail Eilbracht (Madame de la Grand Bouche) and Ben Summers (Chip) all have moments that delight the audience.
The cost of newsprint and ink being what it is today, we cannot include the names of every young person who contributed to this production. (Including the orchestra and technical team, the number runs to several dozen.) It would be churlish, however, not to mention the amusing work of William Curtis as the vain, overbearing Gaston, accompanied by his cartoonish foil, LeFou (Laramie Ziegler). These two plot and scheme to convince Belle that she should marry the handsome Gaston.
It is fair to say that this production is an all-ages affair in terms of potential audience. Opening night saw babes in arms and an age range that included toddlers to teenagers.
One family even came with three little girls each dressed in Belle's iconic golden ball gown. Throughout the performance, there were occasional exclamations of momentary fear mixed with joyful laughter.
In the second act, one girl sitting nearby said excitedly in a stage whisper, "Oh, man! It's so funny! Gosh!" It startled nearby adults and elicited a ripple of laughter.
On the ride home, the critic's daughter, herself a veteran audience member of Broadway shows, was asked why she stood and cheered.
"I love Belle," she said.
It's likely that your children will, too.
Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana