Archive | September, 2012

Our Review of ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’

26 Sep


Anybody likely to cast cynically commercial aspersions at Disney’s efforts to turn its most profitable films into stage shows – indeed to turn once-tawdry Times Square and most of Broadway into a family-friendly Disney theme park – should hustle over to the Hobby Center and see Beauty  and the Beast. That’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, naturally. Onstage, this musical is what happens on those rare occasions that the conglomerate Uncle Walt left behind leads with its heart instead of its cash register. 

Don’t get me wrong: there’s still a ton of merchandizing involved, not to mention little girls in the lobby dressed for the evening in “Belle costumes” from Beauty’s straight-to-DVD sequels. I suppose we can’t deny children their own space in their own time, and the delights to be mined therein. But what’s most striking here happens in the theater, not in the lobby, where a typically young touring-company cast actually teaches us something important about the meaning of love. 

Like virtually all Disney projects, Beauty and the Beast travels a series of unlikely roads from the original source material. Female empowerment remains a focus-grouped big deal here, as it is for Ariel in The Little Mermaid and even for that swipe from real life who lends her name to Pocahontas.   Belle, living her book-crazed “provincial life” in rural France, longs for so much more than she has any right to expect – and of course, through smarts and pluck and undying optimism that’s far more American than French, she’s gonna have it all. Still, what’s most touching about Disney’s spin on the ancient legend of “Belle et Bete” is what is tells us about the transformative power of love, not to mention the power of that love to see the beauty we all carry within. In this, the animated film and the musical both get it right. 

Now, I’ve heard that some people complain about the “sexual politics” of Beauty and the Beast, that somehow this updated storyline encourages women to stay with their abusive spouses and boyfriends in the false hope of changing them. There is a name for such people, though, and I believe that name is “idiots.” I mean, have they never been in love? Have they never felt love take hold of their lives, “apprehend” them from their familiar paths (yes, borrowing from St. Paul, writing about a different form of love) and make them into who and what they were meant to be all along? This part is no legend. This part  happens all the time. And seldom, in story and particularly in song, is it rendered any better than this Beauty does on the Hobby Center stage. 

I’m semi-famous for hating to be “entertained,” preferring to be shocked, shaken, frightened and/or moved to tears. I’m a bit Wagnerian in that sense. So I despise production numbers full of fun, and Beauty and the Beast gives me a fair amount to despise. A host of “fun” songs, from the over-the-top “Be Our Guest” on down, seem to move things along in high spirits for everybody except me, as does the tireless vaudeville-meets-Three-Stooges schtick among the secondary characters. With the high-kicking francophilian makeover everything gets here, this stage Beauty is sometimes reminiscent of another bit of French-accented mindlessness that should be retired yesterday, La Cage aux Folles. It is not a pleasant reminder. 

What matters here, though, is the efforts the Disney team goes to locate and live fully within the heart of the story – as opposed to The Lion King, in which the goal must be to lose and abuse the story’s heart. Most Disney movies taken onstage feature a few great songs from the original, padded out with Tin Pan Alley cheap tricks to give the show enough running time to justify the towering ticket price. Though Beauty had several excellent songs already, brilliant composer Alan Mencken was pressed back into service with equally brilliant lyricist Tim Rice, since Mencken’s original writing partner Howard Ashman had passed away. The result both deepens and defines character, from Belle’s lovely refrain called “Home” to the Beast’s heartrending Act I finale “If I Can’t Love Her.” 

In an exact flip on the movie “Grease,” if anyone at Disney ever animated Beauty and the Beast again, they’d be suicidal not to incorporate these dazzling new showstoppers. They dazzle not just because they’re damn good songs but because they speak to us from within the story, teach us something we didn’t know. As with the love they reflect and proclaim, in their best moments, they transform us.

Photos by Joan Marcus: (top) Hilary Maiberger and Darick Pead; (bottom) Matt Farcher and cast.


Behind the Pink Door at Main Street

14 Sep


When I look in the mirror, I know I’m a girl. Woman. Whatever. But I don’t spend much time thinking about what it means to be one. The gatherers with their hunters. The virgins and sinners. The road traveled by suffragettes and glass-ceiling smashers. The experiences girls share.

As the smart, big-glasses-wearing geeky one for much of my girlhood, I didn’t share many experiences with other girls: Barbies and boyfriends, lipstick and spin the bottle. I was the girl who wrote in my diary not so much about the flutter of sadness that Steven rejected my invitation to the ninth-grade dance because he was taking Amy (true story, by the way, and shrugged off about half an hour after it happened), but lots and lots about how I admired the language of Emerson and Thoreau (also true, and one of the reasons I later studied writing. Possibly also the reason I didn’t have a serious boyfriend till college, but that’s a whole other story).

So, I thoroughly expected to find Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women (playing through Oct. 14) to be a sticky ooze of pink, estrogen-laden squealing, yet another opportunity for me to feel something wasn’t quite clicking with my XX chromosome pairing, setting me further apart from every other woman on the planet. I mean, I love my shoes and handbags, but I love my books much more. And I’ll never understand the whole thing about saying everything’s “fine” when it’s so clearly not.

What a thrilling surprise to discover it’s a delightfully fresh and clever celebration of all those ridiculous, awkward moments of girlhood and womanhood, told through a breezy series of sketch comedy routines, audience-participation improvisations, oddball videos and the occasional shadow puppet show.

Brought to Main Street Theater’s Chelsea Market Space through the sponsorship of I.W. Marks Jewelers, the two-woman comedy caused a minor sensation in Denver, before meandering across the Midwest. Written by Barbara Gehring and Linda Klien, the piece is a loose look at everything girly, from unrequited love to turning your whites pink in the washing machine to those inane and embarrassing puberty presentations you have in the fifth grade. But the writing is so humorously poignant, so welcoming and performers Tracy Ahern and Keri Henson so good naturedly goofy that it’s easy to feel you’re sharing your entire life with some newfound best friend.

Make no mistake: Girls Only is girly. To the max. From the teenage-bedroom inspired set designed by Claire A. Jac Jones, strewn with David and Shaun Cassidy posters, a series of Little House books and paintings of horses to the background music of South Pacific’s “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna have Fun,” to the Technicolor costumes by Mercy Perrone, the production radiates sheer cuteness. What saves it from being overly sentimental is its sheer force of personality.

 When we first meet Ahern and Henson, they’re propped up on the set’s duvet-covered bed, in the middle of a sleepover, delivering rapid-fire commentary on the airbrushed models in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, vamping in their own bras and panties about how insane the whole fashion industry is. Throughout the evening, they move on to reminiscences of stuffed animals saved loving in a “memory box” and throw an impromptu shower for a lady plucked out of the audience. There’s also a marvelous bit where they riff on what you learn about women from their purses, but you have to see it to believe it. Ahern and Henson really do it up right, mastering endless amounts of dialogue, silly song lyrics, a crafting session guaranteeing you’ll never think the same way about feminine protection products, and pulling of an elaborate “Ballet of the Pantyhoes.”

What’s so utterly wonderful is that it’s not a show about Barbies and boyfriends, lipstick and spin the bottle. It’s about those moments where you wonder, “Am I really all right just as I am? “ (Answer: yes.) or “Wouldn’t it be so great if he happened to like me the way I like him?” (Answer: also, yes, but you won’t die if he doesn’t.) It’s about knowing it’s just as ok to have the poster of Star Wars on your wall as it is to drool over the heartthrob. And it’s about growing into yourself, realizing that there’s definitely more than one way to be a girl.

As you might expect, it’s a female-heavy audience, although we did see one or two guys, brave souls, gamely along for the ride. And what a funny, quirky, endearing ride it is. As my gal pal Pam so wonderfully summed up: “It’s darling!”

Photo: Tracy Ahern and Keri Henson