Disney arrives on Broadway with a bang. And a boom, and a roar, plenty of fireworks and a fistful of lovely songs. It will almost certainly be met with varying levels of derision by Broadway traditionalists, many critics among them, and there’s plenty in the $ 12 million production to fuel the ire. The complaints, however, will be meaningless where it counts, which is at the Palace Theater box office and at the “Beauty and the Beast” bazaar that used to be the Palace lobby. Disney’s first Broadway show will be packing them in — and thumbing its nose at the naysayers — for a very long time.
The good news is that in the transmutation from 80-minute animated feature to 150-minute Broadway extravaganza, “Beauty and the Beast” boasts several real pluses. Susan Egan is a charming Belle, while Terrence Mann, who has been furry on Broadway (in “Cats”) and fearsome on Broadway (in “Les Miserables”) is both as the growly but soulful Beast.
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Several of the other performances are equally winning, but the star born of this production is Burke Moses, who plays the preening comic villain Gaston with communicable relish. When everything else on the stage seems forced and effortful, Moses — lips smirking, muscles bulging, eyebrows arching — makes it look simple. He’s easily the musical’s most animated feature.
And of course the live “Beauty and the Beast” comes with the exceptional Alan Menken/Howard Ashman score that helped make a megahit of the film. To that score have been added seven new songs. Six are by Menken and Tim Rice; sometimes clever, they rarely seem necessary, which is what the songs in a musical must be.
The seventh, “Human Again,” was a Menken and Ashman song dropped from the film, and not surprisingly, it’s the best addition, as the Beast’s servants express their longing for the spell to be broken so that they might regain their human forms.
But a human form is exactly what has eluded the Disney folks who assembled this show, which in the end feels bloated, padded, gimmick-ridden, tacky and, despite the millions, utterly devoid of imagination. The pyrotechnics have nothing on “Tommy” or “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the packaging is never better than obvious and heavy-handed. For all the huffing and puffing of scenery , “Beauty” is relentlessly two-dimensional.
Linda Woolverton’s book spends more time developing the Beast, making him a fuller character than he was in the movie. The change is summed up inRice’s best lyric, “If I Can’t Love Her,” in which the unenchanted Prince realizes that if he can’t love Belle, he’s got a real problem.
Putting aside the fact that Belle here is much more of a snobby little social climber than she appeared in the movie, all this moody business for the Beast pretty well defangs him. I mean, it’s not called “Beauty and the Sensitive Guy (with the Tail).” Menken and Rice have also given a number, “No Matter What,” to Belle’s father, Maurice (the great Tom Bosley, not great here), that’s a perfect example of the padding: “They are the common herd,” he sings to Belle, “take my word.” Ugh.
The show is jampacked with special effects: Lights flash, explosions are constantly going off, computerized lights swirl, sending their splayed beams around the stage. The most talked-about effect comes in the final scene, in which the dead Beast’s transformation now plays like a Las Vegas version of the Passion Play at Oberammergau: He levitates! He spins around in midair! He returns to Earth young and scrumptious!
Among the more off-putting effects, Chip (Brian Press) — the son of Mrs. Potts (Beth Fowler, a pro but no match for the film’s Angela Lansbury) — appears as a face in a cup, usually on a cart; the illusion is that of a decapitated head nattering away, and it’s downright creepy. So are the appendages of the other characters — Mrs. Potts’ spout, the torches of Lumiere (Gary Beach, utterly graceless in a role that cries out for finesse), which often look like stumps.
The sets themselves, by Stan Meyer, look like something designed to be seen by people in moving seats, maybe at Disneyland. Broadway audiences will stare in horror at the Day-Glo drop that passes for the countryside that Belle wanders through in the endless opening. The scale of the castle interior is puny, and it will look even punier when John Napier’s eye-popping rendering of Norma Desmond’s digs arrives with “Sunset Boulevard” in the fall.
For “Beauty’s” big Busby Berkeley number, “Be Our Guest,” the stage is enclosed in a series of concentric circles (think Radio City Music Hall, but not too hard), all strung with marquee lights flashing, as the company, costumed as flatware and china, flings itself about.
Matt West’s deadly choreography, lame kick-line stuff, barely deserves to be called dancing, and even with a company of more than 30, the number looks anemic and underpopulated.
But Robert Jess Roth’s incompetent staging is equally crude, and there’s more of it. Whole legions of actors point and stare, pose and look generally like they’re following dotted lines on the stage. They’re also horribly overmiked, one reason, perhaps, why the actors always seem to be pointing to themselves when it’s their turn to talk.
My chief quarrel with Egan is that her voice is more pop star than musical theater (a common problem on Broadway these days), and with all the electronic “help,” the singing seems more and more from another idiom.
One would have expected a pristine show from Disney. There’s no reason for the play to be nearly double the length of the film, and no excuse for a 90 -minute first act for a show whose seats will be filled with lots of kids.
The irony, of course, is that for years, people have complained that the imported musicals have turned Broadway into a theme park. Now Disney’s come along and proven the point. It’s a small world, after all.