By Peter Filichia
Star Ledger Staff
Michael Taubenslag is one smart cookie. When he faces his audience of toddlers, kindergartners and grade-schoolers, he lets them know right away that the “Beauty and the Beast” they'll be seeing differs greatly from the Disney version.
“Now in ours,” he says, “her name is Rose, but in theirs, her name is…?” “Belle” yell the kids, delighted that their opinion has been courted. It won't be the only time that Taubenslag coaxes his audience to participate. Throughout the hour-long show, they'll be called on to answer a question, or give advice to characters.
After he tells them he'll play Rose's father Bartholomew, he opens a trunk, and puts on a Native American headdress. “Do I look like an old man?” he asks. “No” they reproachfully roar. Then he dons a sombrero. “NO!!” Not until he plasters a bald skullcap with gray-ringed hair onto his head do they “Yes!” their approval. What's impressive is that every time Taubenslag queries them, he gets an immediate and loud response. In other words, these kids are paying attention. They should. Taubenslag is a clown in the great tradition of Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason. He allows himself to be pulled and tugged, and falls off a trunk with a thunk. It's not just that he throws himself on the floor; he takes to it as If it's a powerful magnet, and he's a mere shard of metal.
The plot turns on Bartholomew's having to leave home. His daughter Bratella wants him to bring home pounds of chocolate and gallons of Rocky Road Ice cream, but the more winsome Rose merely asks for a flower. When Bartholomew passes by a castle with pretty flowers, be picks one for Rose – unaware that the Beast who owns the garden does not respond kindly to those who tamper with his property. As a result, Rose must go live with the Beast in exchange for her father. That Bartholomew returns home and tells her this – and lets her go sacrifice her life for his – is one of the less dramaturgically strong aspects to the script that Taubenslag wrote with his father, Elliott.
The kids didn't seem to mind. Their fancies were tickled by the simplest of pleasures, such as Beauty's trying to teach the Beast to jump rope. How they loved it when she aped his “Awoooo!” wolf-cry. They accepted the script's overstating the case when it proclaimed, “They became the best friends in the history of mankind.”
Nevertheless, the charm and strength, of the show is that Taubenslag makes the kids feel important, as if they play a real part in the destinies of”Beauty and the Beast' And while tickets to Disney's show cost $75, six bucks gets you into Taubenslag's, which will give your child $75 worth of pleasure. If it's his birthday, they'll make a big deal of him after the show, too.