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Olney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ succeeds with a Belle who brings complexity to the role

Evan Ruggiero as the Beast and Jade Jones as Belle in the Olney Theatre Center’s “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. (Teresa Castracane Photography)

Belle, the heroine of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” has always had moxie. After all, she disses the local sexist hunk and repeatedly rescues her father. But in the Olney Theatre Center production, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Jade Jones’s superb performance raises Belle to a new level. Instead of the easily digestible and diagrammable concerns and objectives, and inflexible tics, that typify most figures in this Mouse House-branded entertainment, her Belle exudes complexity and realness, without sacrificing comic pizazz.

Achieving this feat through, and alongside, concert-hall-worthy singing, Jones is the standout in this iteration of the Alan Menken-scored musical, which also features Evan Ruggiero capably channeling a now-menacing, now-endearing Beast. Several fine supporting performances — particularly Michael Burrell’s hilarious version of Gaston, the aforementioned hunk — also add verve.

On a less positive note, the production suffers from labored choreography and uneven costuming. Theater snobs (like this critic) may find these flaws throw the musical’s slickly storyboarded plotting and engineered characters into unfortunate relief. Still, audiences craving family-friendly diversion will find tunes, comedy and fairy-tale trappings here, with a worthy lesson about the importance of looking beyond lookism.

Designer Narelle Sissons gets things off to a terrific start with a shivery enchanted-castle set. Dangling miniature houses represent the village where Belle lives with her eccentric father (a delightful Sasha Olinick). Although Belle disdains provincial life — as Jones expertly signals with glance and tone — she’s courted by the egotistical local Gaston, who’s such a showoff that he does calisthenics during conversations.

Abetted by the timorous LeFou (a funny John Sygar), Gaston schemes to bend Belle to his will. Meanwhile, she encounters the Beast, a lonely prince trapped in a monster’s shape by a spell that is also turning his servants into household objects: Will Belle see past the Beast’s intimidating facade? Will it happen before his entourage becomes the equivalent of a Target housewares aisle? Not hard to guess.

Ruggiero ably captures the Beast’s underlying callow sweetness: Check out his enthralled expression when Belle reads “King Arthur” aloud to him. (The fact that Ruggiero uses a prosthesis, having lost a leg to cancer, bolsters the anti-lookism message.) Among the other turns, Bobby Smith minces drolly as human candelabra Lumiere, and Dylan Arredondo is aptly pompous as the clock-ish Cogsworth. The music, overseen by music director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, sounds fine.

Certain costumes for the enchanted objects — I’m talking about you, flatware! — look dorky to the point of amateurishness, a shortcoming that can highlight Josh Walden’s stilted choreography. Costume designer Ivania Stack does, however, create stunning gowns for Belle. It’s the least the production can do for its ace-card character, whom Jones endows with both here-and-now vividness and once-upon-a-time allure.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge; lighting design, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Rowe; fight choreographer, Robb Hunter. With Iyona Blake, Hailey Rebecca Ibberson, Miranda Pepin, Jessica Lauren Ball and others. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $42-$90. Through Jan. 2 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.

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