By JOHN DeMERS
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.