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Bone-deep Beauty: Local production outshines the tours 

Children's Theatre artistic director Alan Poindexter has taken Disney's Beauty and the Beast and given it a vigorous shakedown. Bringing the colorful spectacle to ImaginOn automatically reduces its scale. Staging it on a Charlotte-sized budget, Poindexter has also muted the show's special effects impact and allowed scenery to shed some of its Disney magic. Against this more mundane and intimate backdrop, Poindexter has eased off on the Gaston-Le Foux slapstick and allowed his Belle to separate herself from the cookie-cutter fairytale heroines cranked out at Disney over the past 70+ years.

The result outshines the lavish B&B tours we've seen in Charlotte even if it doesn't match their dazzle. Caroline Bower endows Belle with a warmth, a depth and a youthful urgency we haven't seen before. It's a synthesis of the heart she developed last season as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and, a year before, the womanly spine she showed us in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

In the first scene, there's perhaps too much depth and gravity as Belle differentiates herself from the villagers and spurns Gaston. Did she OD on Pinter this summer? Happily, that Judith Anderson stoniness evaporates in the presence of the village bookseller, played by Steven Ivey, and vanishes for good when we encounter her eccentric papa Maurice, inventively done by Mark Sutton.

Flylofts at the McColl Family Theatre get a vigorous workout as we adjourn from the village to Maurice's cottage, from there to the misty woods, and finally to the Beast's castle -- where the library, Beast's heartfelt gift to Belle, caps scenic designer Ryan Weininger's professional debut with a special stained-glass wonder. Was Connie Furr Soloman forced to think outside the box or more intently in it to devise the clock costume for Cogsworth, the bureau for Madame de la Grande Bouche, and the mobile teacup for Chip? No matter, the results are enchantment.

Matthew Keffer makes an absolutely delightful Uptown debut as Gaston, clicking beautifully with Jon Parker Douglas, who is in peak form as Lefou, stooge extraordinaire and community punching bag. I don't know when I've seen so much physical abuse absorbed so athletically or agreeably.

Comedy is no less perfected at the castle. If nobility and sophistication were the hallmarks of Steve Bryan's superb portrait of Lumiere in 2005, Nic Bryan (no relation) excels in bringing out the candelabra's grace and joie de vivre. The object of his lust, tempestuous featherduster Babette, is shaken and stirred in the right places by Susan Roberts Knowlson, with a discreet boost to her derriere at her business end.

Ashby Blakely has auditioned the officiousness of Cogsworth on numerous occasions with the Tarradiddle Players and doles out the clock's bustle and starch with reliable exactitude. Sacrificing a smidge of matronly wisdom, Susan Cherin Gundersheim manages to make Mrs. Potts as adorable as her son Chip, precocious Sam Faulkner. If you're susceptible to tears, they'll likely flow when Gundersheim sings the title song.

Or before -- when you realize it's coming. Obviously, that means the love-hate chemistry between Belle and the Beast is superbly calibrated from beginning to end. Sean Watkins is the man behind the prosthetics, amped loudly enough in the sound booth to turn some of the anklebiters in the audience into cringing, quivering fetal balls. Yet Watkins also makes the Beast adorably ungainly and tender. You don't study Stanislawski to do the Beast. You simply watch King Kong.

Word travels fast in a Facebook world. Gather ye tickets while ye may.

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