Can it be possible that the Dominion Theater on the West End has given “Beauty and the Beast” (or “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” as it is formally known in Britain) its perfect home? That’s an initial and rather surprised reaction to the Howard Ashman-Tim Rice-Alan Menken collaboration in London, some three years after its Broadway incarnation left me glum-faced and depressed.
Sure, this musical adaptation of the Oscar-winning animated blockbuster is at base synthetic, a slick product of corporate culture rather than a genuine act of passion or imagination. But in London, and at an oceanic remove from the debate about the Disneyfication of Times Square, the Mouse’s maiden venture into theater emerges as the Christmas pantomime of one’s wildest dreams, the end-of-pier entertainment no English seaside town could ever afford. Small wonder, then, that the cast (with one damaging exception) plays Linda Woolverton’s book as if it were part of their heritage, since in a way it is.
For all the hype about the show’s record-book status as a Broadway import costing in the double digits, there’s a British jollity to the event — a “knees-up” sense of occasion, if you will — that has turned what looked bloated and self-important in New York into something adults can attend unembarrassed with kids. And let’s face it: The show is at least as much fun as “Oliver!”
This time, it’s as if everyone concerned has taken a cue from Burke Moses’ invaluable Gaston, a performance whose ripely comic self-parody tips off the audience that, for all the sentimentality and special effects to come, the evening is basically a lark. Making his West End debut biceps and forelock intact, the vainglorious braggadocio even amplified, Moses immediately rescues Robert Jess Roth’s production from its own cheesy pretensions. Waiting for Belle (Julie-Alanah Brighten) to respond to his proposal, he jumps in, “is it ‘yes,’ or ‘oh yes?’ ” Elsewhere, he speaks alarmedly of books, Belle’s great passion (schoolteachers of the world, rejoice!), lest they give a girl “ideas.”
Inside the castle of the Beast (Alasdair Harvey), the household objects are having their own high old time. Derek Griffiths’ Lumiere, boasting torches for hands, keeps in likable check the camp that smothered his Broadway forbear, and he and Barry James’ Cogsworth (the talking clock) make a droll pair of romantic coaches, snarling instructions at the lovestruck Prince-turned-Beast. While Mary Millar’s Mrs. Potts is sweet without being saccharine, Di Botcher lets rip as a Welsh-accented dresser-cum-diva, Madame de la Grande Bouche. Also worth a mention is Rebecca Thornhill’s lubricious Babette, who continues to wiggle long after Stanley A. Meyer’s alternately tacky and grandiose sets have stopped. (Even beefed up from Broadway, the set design owes more to theme park illustration than anything to do with the theater.)
The retinue stampede the audience in “Be Our Guest,” a legitimate showstopper for the enchanted objects (the cake slice and whisk are personal favorites) that yokes Busby Berkeley to Gower Champion: It’s only a shame that Matt West’s choreography remains as generic as Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are distinctively and deliciously over-the-top.
Amid such support, the leads can be forgiven for seeming secondary. Harvey, a “Les Miz”/”Phantom” alum, presents a Beast as New Man, a fearful and inarticulate suitor in Phantom mode whose bark is noticeably worse than his bite. Brighten, though, is a colorless blank who doesn’t justify the debate about herself at the start: She considers herself “odd,” while her father, Maurice (Norman Rossington), thinks her “unique.” (Try “bland.”)
Still, perhaps it’s too much to expect someone who can suggest innocence and ambition, fire and just a dash of Freud — if, that is, the costume parade allowed time for thoughts of subtext. For the moment, one can be grateful for the sea change in a show about buried humanity that has required a trans-Atlantic crossing to seem even remotely humane.