On opening night of “Beauty and the Beast” the audience was filled with parents and their young daughters, many of whom were dressed as princesses. While this is an appropriate and fun musical for kids, with enduring music, it is based on an 18th-century fairytale and thus is a bit outdated. While it’s a story of inner beauty triumphing over outer beauty, it must be noted that the story requires that the beautiful woman, Belle, see past the bad looks and bad temper of the man, the Beast, and not the reverse. Would the story be so popular and believable if the gender roles were reversed? It’s the 21st century, so is it too much to ask for a tale about a beautiful man and an ugly woman with inner beauty where the man must see past her looks?
But curmudgeon aside, this is a thrilling production of the musical “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s the same tale, as old as time, from the 1991 animated film, but with seven extra musical numbers and an amazing spectacle on stage. “Beauty” is the eighth-longest running Broadway musical: It ran for 13 years and is now remounted and on tour, stopping in San Jose this week. The new production reimagines this simple fairytale as live theatre, with lavish sets, fabulous choreography, appropriate genre acting and memorable songs composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman.
The production is at its best during the song-and-dance numbers, which are beautifully choreographed by Matt West. The opening number in a provincial town effortlessly introduces us to the hustle and bustle, as the townspeople meet and greet and Belle bemoans her existence as an outsider meant for bigger and better things. The most thrilling dance routine is in the famous “Be Our Guest,” where the clocks and dishes invite Belle out to dinner in the castle. Women dressed as plates circle and fan around Belle; forks and knives parade and dance; and there’s even some impressive back flips done by a man dressed as a carpet. West creates a constant feeling of action and liveliness that’s never too chaotic.
As this is a fairytale, the characters are all played as over-the-top caricatures. Most of the time this works, though it does make some of the jokes difficult to land with the adult audience. Emily Behny as Belle has wonderful stage presence, and while her character is the relatively banal bright-eyed youth, she’s instantly likable and always seems natural in her movements; she’s also got a great voice. Baritone Dane Agostinis as the Beast is playful in his approach to the Beast in need of taming; he plays for the laughs, but it’s a welcome choice since it gives us some sympathy for the Beast early on. Best of all is Gaston (Logan Deninghoff), Belle’s unwanted suitor, full of arrogance and biceps, beloved by all the other local women. Deninghoff is so over-the-top that while Gaston remains incredibly unlikable, he’s not altogether creepy, and he’s a great source of laughs.
The sets, designed by Stanley A. Meyer, are lavish and magical, effortlessly transporting us from a terrifying forest to a baroque castle and then to a quaint provincial town. These locations may all occur on the same stage, but you constantly feel like you’re travelling to a far-off place. There are multiple set pieces that wheel on and offstage—from houses to the library to the town square—which not only evoke place but also help to drive the action and blocking on stage.
There’s a beautiful scene that plays out between Belle and the Beast in the library, where they snuggle up over a good book, high up on the set piece. Meanwhile, the servants, on the ground and stage right, watch the couple hopefully. There’s enough physical space between them—both vertical and horizontal—that you can actually believe that Belle and the Beast can’t hear or see the servants and that the servants inhabit something of a different world than the Beast.
The lighting designed by Natasha Katz works beautifully with the sets and is responsible for creating much of the magic. The spotlight on the Beast when the curse is broken is startling as the rest of the stage goes dark. The lighting cues throughout are used wonderfully to isolate parts of the stage, like allowing Belle and the Beast to court in a small corner downstage while the moonlight looms over everything else: the stage doesn’t seem empty, and it creates a romantic mood.
The spectacle is flawless, and it’s exciting to see how the production has imagined the enchanted forest, the wolves, the witch, the costumes and all of the locations. There’s a lot of technical know-how involved which makes for sets so perfect that despite their extravagance, they can go unnoticed because they simply fit. It’s impossible to leave the theatre without humming one of the tunes, from “Gaston” to “Belle” to the title number “Beauty and the Beast”: the music, if not the story, is timeless. Nevertheless, I can’t help hoping that something a bit more modern, a bit more feminist and a bit less encouraging of the beautiful princess fable will come out soon to entertain our young girls. Because while it’s good fun to dress up like a princess at age five and escape to the world of “Beauty and the Beast,” it might be nice to give young women something more realistic and empowering to aspire to.