NOTE: Spoilers from here on out on this, because I’m assuming most of ya’ll know the story!
It’s always interesting to look back on a favorite childhood fairy tale with an adult’s eyes. I got the chance this weekend at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, where Beauty in the Beast is running only until this March 8th.
Before we continue, I’d like to establish that Beauty and The Beast may be another one of those plays I cannot be entirely objective about. Exhibit A:
As a child, I was downright obsessed with the movie version of Beauty and The Beast. Belle, bookish and principled, was my favorite among Disney’s princesses, and I never got tired of the story’s affecting plot, visual splendor, and dazzling tunes.
The musical version of Beauty and The Beast is based on this movie, which is itself based on a fable that has persevered in one iteration or another since it was first published in the 1740s, though some close predecessors of the story may be as much as 4,000 years old—talk about a tale as old as time!
Despite a few modern feminists pointing out the problematic Stockholm Syndrome-like aspects of Belle and the Beast’s relationship, I’m still more inclined to read Beauty And The Beast as representing instead a truth about what the best love can offer us: a chance for both parties to become greater than they are.
Not to say that it’s an easy journey for either. Beauty and The Beast actually contains some surprisingly dark themes for a children’s story, which is perhaps why it remains appealing and relatable even to many adults. After all, most everyone has, on occasion, felt themselves freakish and unlovable, or isolated and frightened in a strange new “home.”
It may also be worth nothing that Howard Ashman penned the lyrics to the film version’s songs as he was dying of AIDS, which was still highly stigmatized at the time. He passed away only four days after its first screening.
Though this subtext is never made obvious in either movie or musical, it’s hard to miss the heartbreaking emotional undertones to the Beast’s predicament once you’re aware of their real-life roots.
All eight songs from the original movie, plus “Human Again” from its deleted scenes, are present in the stage version of Beauty and The Beast. There are also six new songs, written by film composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. These additions, however, were largely forgettable—or at least I managed to pretty much forget them, and this after having seen a different production of Beauty and the Beast that included them less than two years ago!
The one major exception to my amnesia was the Beast’s devastating “If I Can’t Love Her,” an intense and gorgeous song of self-loathing and doomed longing which I assume is placed before intermission so we will leave our seats awash in memories of our own romantic failures and in exactly the mood for a drink. (Or is that just me? That may just be me….)
Something, though, is lost as well as gained in the transition from film to stage. What can feasibly be done in the real world can occasionally pale in comparison to the physics-defying feats made possible by the magic of animation.
However, theatrical magic is a pretty great substitute. While Be Our Guest on stage is not quite the psychedelic extravaganza it is on film, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with lively dancing dishes, utensils, and even salt and pepper shakers.
Inventive costumes by John P. White certainly provide some interesting physical challenges for the show’s actors: Shannon Connolly must spend nearly the whole show with her arm permanently held in the shape of a handle as Mrs. Potts, while Frank Hughes’s Cogsworth must amble around the stage in, essentially, a giant cardboard box.
Later, the fact that the Beast’s transformation takes place as he is obscured by dancers and smoke rather than raised on a propeller as in the original Broadway production or mysteriously lifted as in the film does nothing to detract from the poignant and cathartic moment of his return to his former self.
Though I found no noticeable bad apples among the cast, standouts include Colleen Pagano, who reaches operatic heights in the relatively small role of Madame Le Grand Bouche; a vocally talented James Arthur Douglas as the brooding Beast; and Rebecca René Kelley, who practically disappeared into the skin of spunky princess Belle.
The ensemble was also at the top of its game, dancing up a storm even in the guise of cutlery and offering us easy-to-miss gems from their places in the background— for instance, when a Silly Girls stuffs her bra with chicken feathers during the song “Belle.”
This winning production of Beauty and The Beast is unlikely to disappoint fans of the original, and likely to win over a few new converts. Meanwhile, I’ll be out looking for my Beast!