As the first Disney foray onto the Great White Way in 1994, Beauty and the Beast set the bar high with its magical score, compelling story, intricate set, and eye-popping special effects. It played 5464 performances on Broadway before closing in 2007 to make way for yet another Disney princess production- The Little Mermaid. The success of the show on Broadway gave way to four national tours and countless overseas productions (including one I witnessed in Madrid, Spain). Now on its fourth tour of the United States with a reimagined production from the original designers, the ‘tale as old as time’ isn’t quite as magical because of scaled-down production values, but the strength of the story and score is still evident. The production, now playing at Washington DC’s National Theatre, also boasts several talented emerging actors who are quite likely to go on to big things in the musical theatre world.
The familiar story centers on a young, fiercely independent bookish beauty (Belle) who is relegated to living in a small provincial town with her father. She has caught the eye of the man every young girl in town wants (Gaston), but has no interest and states so quite clearly- much preferring to read her books and be with her father. After her father gets lost in the woods, he is taken prisoner by a hideous Prince-turned-Beast (as a result of a spell) living in a castle. Belle, out of love for her father, takes his place and becomes the Beast’s prisoner at the enchanted castle- but not for long. Despite their differences, they fall in love- although not without complications. As a result of the mutual love between Belle and the Beast, the spell is broken and the Beast once again becomes a man. His servants, who had become enchanted objects as a result of the spell, also return to human form.
This current incarnation of Beauty and the Beast is being presented by NETworks (as a Non-Equity production) and not Disney. Nonetheless, it still features the memorable songs that Alan Menken (Music), Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice (Lyrics) wrote for the screen and most of the additional seven that were written for the Broadway stage. Linda Woolverton’s strong book, based on the Disney movie of the same name, also remains mostly, if not all, intact. The tour’s creative team, including Rob Roth (Director), Matt West (Choreographer), Michael Kosarin (Music Supervisor/Incidental Music Arrangements), Stanley A. Meyer (Scenic Design), Ann Hould-Ward (Costumes), Natasha Katz (Lighting Design), and John Petrafesa Jr. (Sound Design), were also part of the original Broadway creative team. As a result of their involvement, it’s no surprise that there are many similarities between the two productions. However, there are also some differences. At least two songs have been cut, including the very strong “No Matter What,” which effectively demonstrates Belle’s close relationship with her father. The costumes, sets, special effects, and other production elements have also been scaled down with the biggest scenic design difference being that one does not see a grand castle and majestic rooms within it (for example, a library with multitudes and multitudes of books from floor to ceiling). The ensemble cast is also smaller.
None of these changes serve the production very well- although it should be mentioned that the Beast undergoes a ‘Disney magic’ transformation at the end of Act II like in the Broadway production. However, the score and story, more than adequately performed by a cast of eager young talent, mostly make up for these deficiencies.
It features an important message: inner-beauty is more important than outer-beauty. That message is certainly not lost in this production, which is a testament to both the creative team and the cast.
Emily Behny makes a lovely Belle. With a sweet and angelic voice and appearance, she embodies the Disney princess. It’s clear that she understands Belle’s fiery, yet charming, spirit and has a nice chemistry with all of her scene partners. Her strongest acting moments are found in Act II, particularly when she reads the Beast (Dane Agostinis) the story of King Arthur and when she reunites with the Beast after the castle is attacked. Vocally, she is a very strong Belle. Her rendition of “Change in Me” (a song added to the show after it premiered on Broadway) is very memorable and displays her sweet soprano and strong belt.
Matt Farcher’s Gaston is also extraordinarily impressive. His vocal talent rivals that of his predecessors on the Broadway stage and my hope is that he has a long career in the theatre. He’s off to a great start. His narcissistic take on “Me” (a song in which Gaston lists all of his wants and desires and reminds Belle of all of his wonderful qualities) is the standout moment of the show. He combines technically impeccable singing with great stage presence and acting.
As the Beast, Dane Agostinis had some shining comedic moments as he tried to learn to be nice to Belle. He lacks the gravitas, however, to explore the darker and more foreboding elements of the Beast character. His ‘lighter’ take on the role is appreciated in some scenes where the Beast needs to display vulnerability, but may not be appropriate in others- such as when the Beast first meets both Belle and her father. At the performance I saw, he struggled with the Act I closer, “If I Can’t Love Her,” but displayed nice vocals in several of the reprises in Act II and in “Something There.”
The ensemble cast shines on choral numbers such as “Belle” and “Be Our Guest.” James May (Cogsworth) displays a nice sense of comedic timing throughout the show. Julia Louise Hosack (Mrs. Potts) offers a warm take on the memorable teapot character and her rendition of the iconic “Beauty and the Beast” highlights her vocal chops in addition to solid acting skills. Jimmy Larkin (LeFou) and Michael Haller (Lumiere) make the most of their time in the spotlight and get many laughs from the children in the audience. Although their characters are larger-than-life, I did find their acting choices a bit too ‘broad’ for my taste.
Beauty and the Beast, even when scaled down, remains one of the strongest Disney stage productions. Despite some missteps in this current production, it is still recommended. This tour is one to take the kids to- particularly those who have not yet been exposed to the play. It features an important message: inner-beauty is more important than outer-beauty. That message is certainly not lost in this production, which is a testament to both the creative team and the cast.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including an intermission.
The NETworks touring production of Beauty and the Beast plays at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW in Washington, DC through June 24, 2012. For tickets, call Telecharge at 1-800-447-7400, or purchase them online or at the box office.