The movie studio run by the mouse has always been known for dressing the silver screen with its animated classics. Disney has broadened their reach over the years to encompass everything from ABC and Pixar to Marvel Comics and the Muppets. Starting in 1994 with the musical Beauty and the Beast, Disney planted its flag on Broadway and has never looked back. In the years since, it has launched uber successful productions like the iconic Lion King and Mary Poppins to relative newbie Newsies. What is shockingly clear from watching a Disney theatrical production is that the same exacting detail that goes into making their celluloid creations successful is mirrored on the stage.
Their first effort, Beauty and the Beast, is currently being showcased at Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre. If you are dialing your memory back to the 1991 film classic and are trying to imagine how dancing candelabras and talking clocks get brought to life on the stage, you aren’t the only one. I had this same thought walking into the storied theatre. All I can say is when it comes to Disney nothing is beyond the reach of imagination.
For those who missed out on the animated fun back in the 90s or for those like me who just colored over that block of memory, Beauty and the Beast is essentially looking past the physical to the person housed inside the skin. We are introduced to Belle (Hilary Maiberger), a lovely lass who longs to break free from the shackles of her small town existence and live the life promised between the pages of books she devours. Her father Maurice (William A. Martin) is the town inventor who the townspeople think is operating with a few cogs short upstairs.
Belle seems fit to do her household chores and make her daily trip to the bookstore to let her mind off its leash. During one of her jaunts, the resident meat head Gaston (Jeff Brooks) takes a shine to our fair Belle and decides that he is going to do her the honor of making Belle his wife. Unfortunately, Belle doesn’t quite see this as the treat that Gaston does.
Maurice has devised a contraption that will chop wood as you pedal your bike and plans to take his latest innovation to the county fair. He promises Belle that if he wins, the two of them will shake off the dust of this one horse town to see the world. Belle knits him a special scarf for the occasion and sends him on his way. Venturing through the dense forest at night fall, Maurice is besieged by a pack of wolves and seeks refuge in the closest shelter he comes across — the castle of the Beast.
Inside its thick walls, Maurice meets a talking clock named Cogsworth (James May), the French candelabra Lumiere (Hassan Nazari-Robati) and a whole host of inanimate objects inexplicably sprung to life. This curious scene was birthed created when the castle’s Prince turned away a haggard old women seeking shelter in exchange for a rose. She cast a spell on the mean-hearted prince that his flesh would transform into a Beast until his heart found love and a woman was able to send that love back in return. The Beast doesn’t take too kindly to strangers in his adobe, and he locks poor Maurice away in the dungeon to live out his days.
Belle discovers her father ran into trouble in the dense woods and goes to rescue him. In a act of selflessness, she trades her freedom for her father’s. How will the cold-hearted Beast make the beautiful Belle see him as the man he is inside? Is the man inside really worth seeing much less loving?
Beauty and the Beast certainly has the Disney touch from costumes to set design. You can tell cost was not spared bringing this production to life. This was very important especially in relation to the inanimate characters sparked to life. Whether it be the candle hands of Lumiere, the tea cup head of Chip or the avalanche of fur covering the Beast, these small touches were critical in translating these characters to the stage. The set design was also cleverly done. It was basically three scenes — the town, Belle’s home and rooms within Beast’s castle. The extra cast quickly rotated these in and out for seamless, unobtrusive transitions.
The book by Linda Woolverton is carefully in synch with the Disney film, and the music shares the numerous hit songs from the film including “Be Our Guest,” “Human Again” and “Beauty and the Beast.” This is definitely a huge plus to the Disney stage productions. Outside of a built-in audience, a lot of the moving parts of the musical have already been nailed down before the producers even hit the drawing board.
The cast was strong led by Hilary Maiberger as Belle. She had a nice vocal range and brought the sweet innocence to the face of Belle. Hassan Nazari-Robati brought a lot of spunk and charm to Lumiere, and Jeff Brooks inflated the chest of the pompous Gaston perfectly.
So I think we’ve established that Disney did a great job assembling the pieces on their inaugural Broadway effort, but do the pieces fit together. Largely they do if you look at the audience they were targeting. Just like the film, Beauty and the Beast reaches out to the family-friendly theatre goer. This is for parents who want to share their love of theatre with their children, and this is the perfect performance for this. Some of the dialog and the over-the-top acting play at getting a hardy laugh out of the kids. The grown-ups may roll their eyes at times, but really this isn’t a vehicle to be taken too seriously.
Beauty and the Beast looks to tap into the kid in all of us. We’ve all felt awkward and out of place at times. We’ve, at one point, dreamed of being the princess or the prince. Beauty and the Beast does a quality job transporting us to this enchanted world for a taste of Disney goodness.
Author: Mark Runyon