Theatre Review for Beauty and the Beast

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As Broadway musicals go, "Beauty and the Beast" belongs right up there with the Empire State Building, F. A. O. Schwarz and the Circle Line boat tours. It is hardly a triumph of art, but it'll probably be a whale of a tourist attraction. It is Las Vegas without the sex, Mardi Gras without the booze and Madame Tussaud's without the waxy stares. You don't watch it, you gape at it, knowing that nothing in Dubuque comes close.

At an official cost of nearly $12 million -- unofficial estimates run considerably higher -- the Walt Disney Company has recreated on the stage of the Palace Theater its 1991 blockbuster animated feature, right down to the ravenous wolves, the dancing spoons and the enchanted rose that sheds its petals as true love's hopes run low. Family audiences tired of prancing felines are apt to find this cause for celebration. Others may look upon the eye-boggling spectacle as further proof of the age-old theory that if you throw enough money at the American public, the American public will throw it right back.

The scenery by Stan Meyer -- mostly in that ornate, slightly scary German Gothic style that passes for picturesque at Disney -- is almost always on the move. No apparition, disappearance, thunderbolt, rainstorm or swirling fog bank is beyond the capabilities of the show's special-effects engineers. Any one of Ann Hould-Ward's costumes would be the envy of a Beaux-Arts ball. And if you thought the chandelier crashing to the stage in "The Phantom of the Opera" was something, wait until the Beast (Terrence Mann), presumably dead, rises up from the castle floor, floats 10 feet or so into space, then starts to spin like a human propeller. Before the spinning is done and you've caught your breath, he has somehow shed all things beastly and become a dashing prince again. (Take that, Siegfried and Roy.)

The astonishments rarely cease. Yet strange as it may sound, that's the very drawback of "Beauty and the Beast." Nothing has been left to the imagination. Everything has been painstakingly and copiously illustrated. There is no room for dreaming, no quiet tucked-away moment that might encourage a poetic thought. For an evening that puts forth so much, "Beauty and the Beast" has amazingly little resonance. What you see is precisely what you get. In the end, the musical says far less about the redemptive power of love than it does about the boundless ingenuity of what is called Team Disney.

The movie's strength -- at least from Broadway's perspective -- is the Academy Award-winning score by Alan Menken and his partner, Howard Ashman, who died early in 1991, before work began on the stage version. Such songs as "Belle," "Be Our Guest" and "Gaston" are happily reminiscent of Lerner and Loewe, and the title number speaks stirringly of love, as few Broadway ballads do these days. To them, Mr. Menken, working with the lyricist Tim Rice, has added seven new numbers, partly to bring out the sensitive side of the Beast, partly to underscore Belle's fortitude. However, the production, directed by Robert Jess Roth, is reluctant to let a song be a song in its own way and time. Two kinds of delivery are recognized: the hard sell and the harder sell.

"Be Our Guest," the first-act show-stopper, knows no shame in that regard. Its lavishness is close to delirium, its giddiness beyond camp. If you are one of the six people in America who don't know the plot, a wicked witch has transformed the handsome prince into a cross between Quasimodo and a buffalo, and the staff of the castle is slowly turning into sundry household objects: teacup, feather duster and the like. When it looks as if Belle, the pensive town beauty, might break the curse by falling in love with the Beast, the housewares get pretty excited. Hence, the production number.

Before long, the spatula is cavorting with the fork, the rug is doing cartwheels and the dinner plates are parading down a grand staircase like arrogant showgirls angling for a sugar daddy. The choreographer, Matt West, is responsible for this interlude, although Busby Berkeley on magic mushrooms might have staged it. For its duration, at least, the extravaganza elevates "Beauty and the Beast" to a realm of hallucinogenic lunacy that surely goes against every sane and sober principle Disney stands for.

The actors resemble their cartoon counterparts as much as real actors could reasonably be expected to. In the case of Susan Egan, who plays Belle, a quintessential Disney heroine, being pretty, unspoiled and plucky (but never rude) is mostly what's required. Tom Bosley, as her eccentric inventor father, limits himself largely to a dazed and bumbling manner. The others, however, are variously done up as steaming teapot (Beth Fowler, giving the evening's warmest performance), grandfather clock (the amusingly Napoleonic Heath Lamberts), overstuffed armoire (the imperious Eleanor Glockner) and gold candelabrum (the rather-too-excitable Gary Beach). In place of hands, Mr. Beach has melted candles that function, periodically, as flamethrowers. This will appease all those little boys in the audience who would just as soon Belle got lost in the woods.

Much of the movie's charm stems from the way objects are made to look and behave like people. Reversing the anthropomorphic process, the musical prides itself on how cleverly people can be made into objects. Even Gaston (Burke Moses), the town Adonis, gives the impression that he is inflated with helium and destined for a place of honor in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He has piano keys for teeth, his pompadour rises off his forehead like a tidal wave and he preens like Arnold. Whenever he socks his dopey sidekick, Lefou (Kenny Raskin), the sound technicians provide the sort of "pows" and "thwunks" that you normally hear when Popeye flattens Bluto. Lefou, naturally, goes sprawling halfway across the stage.

While the tale of Beauty and the Beast is not fraught with psychological complexities, Linda Woolverton's book expands her screenplay without noticeably deepening it. Only the primary emotions and the most elemental reactions stand a chance of holding their own against the bustle and blazing pyrotechnics, anyway. The miracle of Mr. Mann's performance is not its epic monstrousness or the fury of his amplified roars. It's miraculous because somehow, despite the masses of matted fur, the padding and the protruding incisors, he actually manages to convey the delicacy of awakening love. (His eyes have a lot to do with it. Ringed with concentric circles of black, they can be ineffably sad.) Elsewhere, simple-mindedness prevails, cheerfully and unapologetically.

"Beauty and the Beast" is Disney's first official Broadway musical, with more, apparently, to come. Nobody should be surprised that it brings to mind a theme-park entertainment raised to the power of 10. Although not machine-made, it is clearly the product of a company that prizes its winning formulas. Inspiration has less to do with it than tireless industry.

The result is a sightseer's delight, which isn't the same thing as a theatergoer's dream.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Robert Jess Roth; choreography by Matt West; sets by Stan Meyer; costumes by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by T. Richard Fitzgerald; hair design by David H. Lawrence; illusions by Jim Steinmeyer and John Gaughan; prosthetics by John Dods.

General management, Dodger Productions; production supervisor, Jeremiah J. Harris; production stage manager, James Harker; dance arrangements, Glen Kelly; musical coordinator, John Miller; fight director, Rick Sordelet; orchestrations, Danny Troob; musical supervisor and vocal arrangements, David Friedman; musical direction and incidental music arrangements, Michael Kosarin. Presented by Walt Disney Productions.

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