With a tale as old as time such as Beauty and the Beast it’s hard to and would be brave to deviate from the original story too much. That’s probably why my experience of watching this Disney classic on the stage was a little jarring. A talented and funny cast though they may be and as fresh as it is to watch a film and story you know so well translated into a musical theatre production, it was still enjoyable yet not one that blew me away.
Although Beauty and the Beast is not my favourite Disney film, things I have always admired about Belle as a Disney Princess are her intellect, her immunity to Gaston’s advances, and her journey to falling in love with the Beast rather than at first sight like other princesses. I had hoped the musical would make me like the story more than I already did, but instead it made me hungrier for other musical adaptations of Disney films to be made.
The two leads of the show – which is currently touring the UK – played by Courtney Stapleton and Shaq Taylor, as well as the cute teacup Chip who was portrayed by the adorable Manasseh Mapira – broke the barrier by being non-White. I always applaud an ethnically diverse cast that flips the norms, but both leads were quite overshadowed by members of the supporting cast. Stapleton had an almost against-type Princess voice at times, one that was lower and richer than expected in certain songs or bars, and sang with the conviction of urgency and passion when needed. Meanwhile, Taylor had a deep, rich and booming but also gritty, commanding voice perfect for the Beast. However, it was the likes of Lumiere, Cogsworth and Gaston who stole the limelight.
The double act of Lumiere (Gavin Lee) and Cogsworth (Nigel Richards) provided great comic relief along with the other household “items”. There was more tongue-in-cheek and borderline risqué jokes and overly camp mannerisms (because of course, being camp is hilarious isn’t it… *eyeroll*) not present in the animated and live-action films that tickled the audience of all ages.
Gaston (understudy Alyn Hawke), in all his muscly, big-headed glory continues to make everyone love to openly dislike but secretly still like him as a Disney villain. As much as he is cocky, misogynistic and very full of himself, he is still hilarious in his delivery, charming to an extent and, of course quite easy on the eye. You almost despair at the fact he has to fall to his death seeing as he’s not the worst Disney villain of them all. But along with the Beast, Hawke’s powerful, masculine baritone voice completes Gaston’s profile to a tee. It’s just a shame on the line for the song Gaston, “and every last inch of me’s covered in hair” he doesn’t prove it, like the cartoon version does…
The music of Beauty and the Beast, like all Disney films remains iconic and memorable, but like all stage show productions, extra songs are added in between. And like with Frozen, the majority of them were filler and quite forgettable. An exception being A Change in Me, which was specifically written in for R&B star Toni Braxton in 1998 when she became the first Black woman to play Belle. The song is sung by Belle after she rescues her father and returns from the castle; every Disney Princess needs their big signature song and before A Change in Me Belle didn’t have one. However, now she does and it allows Stapleton and anybody else who takes on the coveted role to really show what they are capable of.
In addition, the new Gaston-led song Me with Belle gives the vain villain more of a chance to pull the spotlight onto him. The musical’s biggest and most well-known number, Be Our Guest, was undoubtedly the one everyone was most excited for. And while it was certainly a visual delight that featured flashing lights, psychedelic and circus-like backdrops, dancers dressed as plates, and lots of can-can and tap dancing, it did seem to drag on for about ten minutes longer than necessary (and no high D♭6 note is heard, which was disappointing). At the end, Belle proclaims the dinner (a.k.a. the grey stuff) was delicious (she obviously sides with the dishes) yet you never saw her eat anything – all that singing and dancing surely worked up an appetite though.
And talking of flashing lights, there are some extremely blinding flashes of them in several scenes that those with epilepsy and certain eye conditions such as glaucoma might find difficult to watch (but they come without warning so you can’t exactly turn away in time). I do not recall warnings being made clear anywhere in advance so this is a glaring omission on Disney’s part.
A couple of the sets used in Beauty and the Beast were interesting choices. As mentioned, the entire scene for Be My Guest went all out which appeared to take up most of the production budget, and the choreography and fanfare for Gaston was a full-on celebration of everybody’s favourite man in the little French provincial town. But instead of ensemble characters dressed as wolves in the forest attacks and fight, they used stage curtains with projections, which I felt almost cut a corner on what could’ve been more dramatic scenes, even if potentially a little scarier for the younger children.
Furthermore, the extension of some of the scenes (the first act was overly long), meant other scenes were not given the dues they could have been. The storming of the castle (a scene present in both films) wasn’t shown so the mob who followed Gaston suddenly disappeared, while the Beast and Gaston’s fight to the death was quick and a tad anti-climactic. What would an extra five minutes added to the show have been?
And the problem with the ending of Beauty and the Beast is it’s final scene and song. The ballroom setting and the reprise of the title song are rather dull and again, anti-climactic to what is originally quite a rollercoaster of a story. Also, Gaston’s sidekick – or ass-kisser – LeFou, is forgotten about. Long considered a “closet” gay character whose supposed sexuality was hinted at in the live-action film (in a split-second “blink and you’ll miss it” moment) and many believe was not given his dues, was reportedly getting his own prequel show. Unfortunately that has now been put on hold indefinitely. Is it that it was potentially going to be “too gay” for Disney? But would that have explored more about him, his backstory and what happens to him after Beauty and the Beast? Hopefully one day we will know.
If you’re a fan of Beauty and the Beast, you’re likely to fall in love again and relive the charm of the story, plus appreciate the small additions and changes made. However, if you’re wanting a revolutionary spin on it which challenges original concepts and storylines, this one may fall under your expectations.
But the Beauty and the Beast musical is, in spite of everything, still a funny, warming and inspirational show. One that keeps the magic of Disney alive in people who grew up watching the original film and keeps young children in touch with the classics (especially one like this that has a moral to it) who may be inspired by one of their first trips to the theatre. The tagline of it might be “the most enchanted musical of all time” and while it might not be the most enchanting to me, I can certainly see why it would be to some people still so many years on.