When Walt Disney animators were able to capture the liquid, rapid-fire nature of Robin Williams’ comedy in “Aladdin,” it was hailed as a remarkable achievement, translating a human into a cartoon. But reversing that process — turning beloved cartoons into flesh and blood — is another challenge entirely.
Of course, Disney does this kind of adaption all the time in its miniaturized stage revues for its entertainment parks. But for the Broadway-bound “Beauty and the Beast,” which recently opened a tryout run in Houston courtesy of Theater Under The Stars, the company is determined to get into legit in a lavish, serious way. And it has generally succeeded. On stage, “Beauty and the Beast” is more often beaut than beast.
As soon as the 1991 film opened, critics were pointing out what a classic musical comedy the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman material could make. And the stage show has the instant advantage of that charming and assured, Oscar-winning score and Linda Wooverton’s script.
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The show’s creators were wise not to mess with the proven success of a $ 145 million-grossing movie. The great set pieces, such as the Busby Berkleyish “Be Our Guest” and Gaston’s self-parodying song, “Gaston,” remain. The five new songs by Menken and Tim Rice, who steps into the late Howard Ashman’s shoes as he did for “Aladdin,” are mostly just poignant time-servers — giving Belle’s father (Tom Bosley) a paternal number, for instance.
But the Menken-Rice collaboration shines in the Beast’s “If I Can’t Love Her, ” which combines a lovely descending-line melody with one of Rice’s most touching efforts in the way the Beast haltingly, almost inarticulately grapples with his developing love.
Given the fairyland-monster-cartoon setting of the show, the production designers did not opt for either the rich darknesses and tapestried textures of “Phantom of the Opera,” or the more classic storybook look of “Into the Woods,” for which designer Ann Hould-Ward also created the costumes. Instead, “Beauty and the Beast” is an elaborate mix of Gothic Victorian and comic Louis Quinze. Perhaps a little too elaborate, too clever on Houston’s Music Hall stage — adapted to fit the size of Broadway’s Palace, where “Beauty and the Beast” is scheduled to open in April — the show feels cramped at times.
At one end, Hould-Ward’s costumes and Stan Meyer’s set give the show plenty of magical gloom and glitter, edging into comic caricature. At the other, “Beauty and the Beast” gets close to slipping into a big-budget kiddie show or magic act with its overdone showbiz glitz and sparkly stage-illusion effects. In translating the leaping, dancing flatware of the “Be Our Guest” number to the stage, for instance, director Robert Jess Roth delivers too much frantic sparkle and not enough tongue-in-cheek humor. The entire number should come off with the assurance and savoir-faire of Gary Beach’s Lumiere.
There is some tweaking that could still be done. At 2:45, with a 90-minute first act, the show poses the same problem “The Secret Garden” did when it comes to the youngsters who will undoubtably make up a large portion of its audience — the show runs way past bedtime.
Moreover, in the film, the Beast already was more lovably growlish than truly gruesome. Here, he is like a sulky little boy in a giant fuzzy suit, sort of Calvin (and) Hobbes.
In other words, perhaps out of fear of scaring the kids, the Beast is hardly frightening at all, so there’s little tension. Of course, Belle (Susan Egan) will like him; of course, he’ll surmount his frustrations. He’s practically a plush toy.
Terrence Mann seems to be making a specialty out of singing with fur on: The former Rum Tum Tugger of “Cats” is unrecognizable in the matted-maned minotaur get-up, which is so top-heavy on his head, it has him practically singing into his chest. But he does well by the role physically — leaping up banisters — and emotionally, particularly during his song, “If I Can’t Love Her.”
The show provides plenty of opportunities for beguiling stage comedy and second-banana stuff: Even in the film, such characters as the candelabra, Lumiere, and the talking teapot, Mrs. Potts, seemed clearly borrowed from stage performers such as Maurice Chevalier — and Angela Lansbury, who provided the film voice for Mrs. Potts.
Gary Beach and Heath Lamberts do not disappoint as the roguish candlestick or the officious clock, Gosworth. But it’s Burke Moses as the pompous and pompadoured Gaston who nearly steals the show. It’s a classic Miles Gloriosus role, and Mr. Moses has thundering fun with it. However, as with the Beast, the intention seems to be to tone down any darker or more violent aspects. In his climactic battle with the Beast over the love of Belle, Gaston doesn’t exhibit here the kind of sadism he does in the film.
Other credits, such as Susan Egan as Belle, are fine. Matt West’s choreography is mostly just high-energy filler — can-cans for the cutlery and napkin rings, yee-haw antics for Gaston’s guys.
Disney representatives are tightlipped about the budget, obviously a pretty penny, but definitely on the low end compared with movie costs.
Even the clunky, once-leaky Music Hall has been given some seriously needed upgrades, including new traps and a whole new lighting grid. Opening night, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the honchos from “Team Disney,” were busily represent, as were Menken and Rice — and Ann Richards, governor of Team Texas.
“Beauty and the Beast” is an all-singing, all-dancing and definitely all-Disney product. Director Roth has off-Broadway credits, but he’s also been staging shows for Uncle Walt’s venues for years with choreographer West and designer Meyer.
But for presenter Frank Young, “Beauty and the Beast” is also a leap into the big time. His Theater Under the Stars has primarily been a provider of summer-stock and outdoor musicals to Houston and Seattle (through the 5th Avenue Musical Theater), only lately edging into premiering works on the order of the Arthur Kopit-Maury Yeston “Phantom of the Opera.”
Despite the glitz and the occasional glitch, “Beauty and the Beast” could well be the big new musical hit this Broadway season has been waiting for.