‘Beauty’ offers a lite spin on well-worn story

Thomas Jenkins

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After last season’s surprise cancellation of 101 Dalmations — a production so troubled it actually closed on the road — Broadway Across America has substituted a return engagement of Beauty and the Beast, the eternally heart-warming tale of compulsory exogamy. Expanded from the hit 1991 animated film by Ashman and Menken, Beauty and the Beast retells the legend with a familiar Disney touch: it naturally elides the more disquieting aspects of Beauty’s cohabitation with the Beast, while ratcheting up the family-friendly values. Unlike the more daring The Lion King or Into the Woods, this is not a production that works on multiple levels: it’s transparently aimed at kids, with plenty of pratfalls and slapstick humor. At 160 minutes, however, it’s a bit lengthy for small children, and the little ’uns around me were notably restless during the ballads and less frenetic numbers. It’s certainly not a show for toddlers.

The current, peppy touring production is non-Equity (that is to say, non-union) and generally populated by younger actors starting their careers; I’ve at best mixed feelings about non-Equity tours appearing at the Majestic, but at least Beauty and the Beast has plenty of roles for those just tumbling — sometimes literally — out of a BFA program. The plot generally follows that of the film: a gorgeous young damsel — non-ironically named Belle — agrees to swap places with her hapless Dad (Christopher Spencer), who has landed in the castle and clutches of a misunderstood Beast. After springing Dad from his dungeon, Belle must learn to negotiate her troubled relationship with the lovesick Beast, even as the Beast himself harbors a thematically relevant secret. Meanwhile, a dashing yet dastardly suitor, Gaston, has hatched a plan to seize Belle for himself, and soon Gaston and the Beast are on a collision course with shattering consequences. At the end of the day (and the end of the play), which will win out: inner beauty or outer?

In real life, of course, outer beauty is always victorious, but I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to surmise Disney’s take on things. In any event, this production is generally well-cast: Liz Shivener looks beautiful as Belle — no irony, here — and sings sweetly, though with a few pitch problems; Justin Glaser is saddled with pounds of make-up and costuming, but puts over the Beast’s ballads with a booming baritone. Nathaniel Hackmann pretty much steals every scene as the preening narcissist Gaston, a sort of feudal Elvis. Stanley Meyer’s scene design is obviously inspired by woodcuts and storybooks, and Basil Twist and Jim Steinmeyer contribute a few puppets and illusions. The chorus’ inexperience occasionally shows in the execution of Matt West’s choreography: the dances don’t always have the snap and precision we expect from Broadway Across America. But even in a touring production, one can see why Ann Hould-Ward’s inventive array of costumes earned her a Tony Award.

While I’ve generally fond memories of the cinematic version, Rob Roth’s direction can’t hide the padding in this stage production; in particular, the ten minutes preceding “Be Our Guest” seem like filler — as if merely priming the audience for that wonderfully loopy send-up of French gastronomy. But in many ways, Beauty and the Beast is most successful if taken on its own terms: as a musical that really wishes to do nothing more than to replicate the experience, and boffo box office receipts, of the original film. Whether that’s beautiful or beastly is up to you.

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