Born in Hollywood as an animated film, Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” has returned home as an opulent stage musical, a year after its Broadway bow. Both good and bad choices have been made in adapting the 1991 film, but with its outstanding performances, fantastic production values and memorable score, this show should warm the hearts of all but the most curmudgeonly theatergoers.
This is Disney’s first venture into legit, and is virtually the same show that opened in Houston in December 1993 and bowed on Broadway four months later. With the exception of Fred Applegate, who fits in beautifully as the tightly wound human-turned-clock
Cogsworth, the principals are all vets of the original cast, and their experience shows: These are razor-sharp performances.
Susan Egan’s transformation is much more subtle than the Beast’s, and she handles it beautifully, and sings with great expressiveness.
Terrence Mann makes the Beast’s often vain attempts to control his anger — and, later, overcome his shyness — extremely amusing. It’s like watching a well-coached 5-year-old at a formal dinner party; you keep waiting for the facade to drop.
For all its glitz — and the special effects are dazzling — the show is most affecting in its quiet moments, as it tells the story of two scared people who hesitantly, tentatively fall in love. The classic fairy tale, sensitively retold by Linda Woolverton (scripter of the animated film and writer of the book here), strikes all sorts of primal chords.
Director Robert Jess Ross, who has created shows for the company’s theme parks, overplays the physical comedy at times but stages the romantic scenes with welcome sensitivity.
The evolving relationship between Belle and the Beast works even better than in the film, thanks in large part to a new scene written for the play. As the two sit in the library, Belle reads the Beast the story of King Arthur. He responds by showing genuine vulnerability — a touching moment that points the way to their falling in love.
Woven into that lengthy scene is the song “Human Again,” a Howard Ashman-Alan Menken number that got cut from the movie. Like “Be Our Guest,” which also stars the household objects, it’s a huge, flashy production number that works on its own bewitching terms even as it helps move the story along.
The musical reprises the six songs that the late lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken wrote for the pic, and adds seven new ones. Six of those were penned by Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice; they’re serviceable, but can’t compete with the late Ashman’s brilliant wit. “If I Can’t Love Her,” which the Beast sings to close act one, makes the strongest impact, thanks to Mann’s passionate rendition.
What keeps the show fromgreatness is the decision by someone to tone down the sense of danger one felt watching the movie (which reflected the spirit of the original fairy tale.)
The audience should be scared for Belle as she is chased by wolves, but the dancing carnivores aren’t threatening.
Belle’s would-be suitor, Gaston (Burke Moses), who is a menacing clown in the film, is merely a clown in the play.
Even the dramatic climax, when the lynch mob storms the Beast’s castle, is played largely for laughs.
Someone obviously decided that the show shouldn’t be too disturbing to an audience dominated by parents and their children.
But this is a disturbing story and kids somehow survived watching the film. It’s doubtful that Walt Disney, who understood the necessity for strong villains , would have accepted this sanitized approach.
Gary Beach shamelessly plays to the audience as candelabra Lumiere, but his amusing hamminess is perfect for the character. Tom Bosley has little to do as Belle’s father, and does it well enough.
Matt West’s choreography is often quite clever. The dance during “Gaston,” which includes synchronized chinking of beer mugs, is particularly delightful.
Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are appropriately colorful and fanciful. Stan Meyer’s sets are amazing. With its cathedral-like ceilings and staircases heading in various directions, the beast’s castle is both beautiful and intimidating.