The musical that marked Disney’s return to animation superiority and which later started the rush of Disney musical adaptations to Broadway, “Beauty and the Beast,” has arrived at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts as part of its national tour, where it is now playing through Sunday, May 11.
For fans of the film, who no doubt made up the vast majority of the audience on opening night, all of the musical’s highlights are there: the exuberant production number “Be Our Guest,” the haunting waltz of a title tune, the sweet but studious Belle, the arrogant self-centered stud Gaston, and the frighteningly anti-social beast, as well as the full array of singing and dancing household items which include a candelabra, a clock, a very French feather duster, a wise, maternal tea pot and her chipped teacup of a son.
Musically, the show does not disappoint, with an 11-person orchestra showcasing the wonderful score by Alan Mencken (music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics). Also replicated from the motion picture is Linda Woolverton’s script, which she has adapted to accommodate the conventions of live theater. Though it has been gone from Broadway for several years, “Beauty and the Beast” still remains the seventh longest-running show in Main Stem history. The story of how the lovely Belle learns to look past the Beast’s gruff appearance and behavior to discover the honorable and noble soul trapped within still maintains a strong appeal to both children and adults with the lesson that a person’s value should not be determined by his or her looks.
And even though this is one of the few Disney vehicles that does not feature a princess in a major role, with Belle being an eccentric inventor’s daughter, that didn’t stop parents from bringing their young daughters all dressed up in their best princess drag complete with dresses and tiaras. I guess Disney, no matter the story, is synonymous with “princesses.”
For those few audience members unfamiliar with the film, the idea of seeing inanimate objects come to life and played by real-sized actors in complicated costumes could be a bit jarring, especially since the Beast is hardly any bigger than these enchanted items. Plus if you’re not aware that Lumiere is a candelabra or that Babette is a feather duster, you might find the costumes and the characters themselves a bit odd. Yes, it is all explained away by the existence of a curse directed at a young prince who was repelled by an ugly witch, who then transformed him into the Beast and the members of his household into these “living” objects. Of course, if you caught the glorious animation, then you understand the presence of dancing dishes and singing spoons. But as clever and creative as they are, some of Anne Hould-Ward’s Tony-Award winning costumes can be downright awkward or confusing (I’m talking about you, tableware!).
Rob Roth, a veteran of rock concerts and a few rock musicals including the inaugural Atlanta production of Disney’s ill-fated Aida, has directed with efficiency, in concert with Matt West’s boisterous but ultimately underwhelming choreography. Stanley A. Meyer’s scenery is colorful and evocative, while just abstract enough to accommodate its minimalism. Natasha Katz’s lighting helps add to the magical feel of the piece, particularly in the scenes within the Beast’s castle, in order to suggest different rooms and locations. John Petrafessa, Jr.’s sound design seemed inadequate at times for the Bushnell’s large Mortenson Auditorium, making it difficult to hear some of the dialogue of the book scenes.
The main principals in the cast were fairly strong in their respective roles, with Hilary Maiberger’s Belle getting the biggest workout of the evening. Her Belle comes off with the right amount of smugness in her intellect as she revels in her books and her “oddness” among the townspeople. She makes Belle’s gentle imperiousness believable particularly when the village’s self-satisfied athletic doofus finds her rejections to be an irresistible challenge. Maiberger sports an excellent singing voice that serves her especially well in her Act II solo, “A Change in Me,” where she realizes her foolishness in being so harsh with the Beast.
As the Beast, Derick Pead must wear the bulky head and costume of the Beast throughout the evening, but he seems to have mastered the ability to maneuver in it with apparent ease. He relies on broad head movements and postures, as well as his well-miked voice, to develop a personality for the creature, who grunts, roars, stumbles, rages, bellows and sings as he evolves into caring, gentlemanly figure under Belle’s spell and encouraged by the living objects who believe that a Beast-Belle love can finally lift the curse. Pead demonstrates his way with a ballad, especially on his first-act closer, “If I Can’t Love Her.”
Tim Rogan is quite disarming as the preening, self-focused Gaston, who is well-matched by Jordan Aragon as his merrily acrobatic accomplice and admirer, the diminutive LeFou, who gets tossed around the stage and rolls around the floor as he gets in the way of Gaston’s movements and exercises. Hassan Nazari-Robati makes for an elegant, smooth candelabra Lumiere, complete with two candles for hands, while James May plays the clock Cogsworth with the right mix of tightly-wound caution and ingenuity.
Kristin Stewart (not the movie star of vampire fame) offers a warm, tenderhearted portrayal of Mrs. Potts, who is wisely concerned about the Beast’s welfare as well as that of her eager son, Chip, here portrayed by a young boy fit under a serving cart. Stephanie Moskal is an amusing, verygame Babette, complete with accent and French maid uniform, and Roxy York is a fine Madame de la Grande Bouche, who has been turned into a wardrobe, which is one of the hardest manifestations for the costume designer to pull off. Paul Crane plays Belle’s father Maurice as frequently befuddled but determinedly devoted to his daughter’s welfare.
There are some disturbing figures in the mysterious woods that separate the village from the Beast’s castle, including a pack of wild dogs that at separate times pose a danger to Belle and her father. These growling, threatening animals are among the ingenious puppets created by noted puppeteer Basil Twist for this production, along with the tall, thin, ugly witch who curses the Beast before she turns herself into a lithe young woman. There are a few other transitions, some created by illusionist Jim Steinmeyer, who manages to turn a twirling beast into a handsome restored prince.
“Beauty and the Beast” has retained its charms as evidenced by the reactions to this tour which indeed meets high theatrical standards. From a film made in 1991, it is impressive how this juggernaut continues to cast its spell. No doubt it will one day work its way back to Broadway to delight a whole new generation raised on the DVD.
For information and tickets, contact the Bushnell Box Office at 860.987.6097 or visit their website at www.bushnell.org.
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