In 1991 Walt Disney Pictures released one of its biggest and best animated musicals since the “good old days” of Disney musicals. Adored by children of all ages, it was, of course, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. As soon as it came out, critics said it would make a great stage musical. Unlike many other cases of screen-to-stage musical transfers, the result was a delight. With music by Alan Mencken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, the songs were not only deeply meaningful but some of Disney’s best since the heyday of The Sherman Brothers (MARY POPPINS, THE JUNGLE BOOK, and others) as Disney’s chief tunesmiths. Opening in 1994, it ran for over 5,000 performances until its close in 2007.
It’s performed regularly, but rarely as hugely as it deserves. It’s an iconic story, known to most if not all children long before the movie ever came out. (The best-known version of the story, which is rooted in the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche, was written by Jeanne-Marie LaPrince de Beaumont in the eighteenth century.) It is not only mythic, but of mythic proportions. Beasts, crazed villagers, castles hidden in the woods, sorceresses, and ancient curses cannot be told in a small way. At the Fulton Theatre, artistic director Marc Robin has made it not only huge, but immense, and has done so magnificently. From set to props to costumes, the effect is of a giant, multi-tiered, frosted and glammed-up competition display cake, one that other bakers weep at when they see what’s been done. The recent R&H CINDERELLA gown by fabled costumer William Ivey Long is nothing next to Belle’s gown here, designed by Ryan Moller. The projected backdrops are as lavish as anything in a Disney animation. There’s a cast of 32.
In an age of “go big or go home,” Robin won’t be home any time soon. The opening night audience gasped multiple times at the set and costumes, as well they should have. If a Disney fairy tale has ever come to complete life on stage, it is here. Within Robin there’s clearly a child who wants fairy tales to come true, as well as a director who’s capable of making them do that, at least for a few hours at a time. It’s the secret of his success as a children’s theatre writer, and it shows here as well.
The story is well-known, and hardly bears repeating here, other than to point out that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST helped bring Disney princesses into the modern world. Belle is the daughter of an inventor, is able to help him with her work, and loves to read, preferring her books and the adventures in them to the importunings of the besotted hunter and best-built man in the village, Gaston. It’s a far cry from the early Disney princesses and a step on the way to the more modern ones of BRAVE and the like. The Belle of this production is Lexi Rabadi, who manages to have a vocal capacity of two to three times her physical size. It’s not just microphones, it’s her, and she puts that voice to excellent use, especially in “Is This Home?” Her Gaston, Nathaniel Hackmann, is not only a talented singer but indeed handsome and, as required by the role, sufficiently muscular-looking to convince you he could uproot a tree.
When she runs off to find her father, she falls into the clutches of the Beast, whom the audience, but not she, knows is a handsome prince cursed to appear to be a monster. Matt Farcher is certainly able to convince an audience of both parts, and requires kudos for surviving in Beast costuming. Although costumes have improved since the original Broadway production, it’s still not always far off original Beast, Terrence Mann‘s, remembrance of the costume, throughout the show, as “wearing five of your heaviest winter coats, gluing three angora cats to your head, then running around the block in the summertime for two hours.” Farcher’s able to make it look easy.
Also noteworthy are Belle’s father Maurice, played by Fulton veteran Michael Ianucci, as well as the main trio of servants, Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Cogsworth, played, respectively, by Charis Leos, James Patterson, and Brian Cali. Those three are responsible for making the show, as they lead three of the show’s most notable songs, including the two everyone knows, “Be Our Guest” and the title song, “Beauty and the Beast.” Leos gives a heart-tugging rendition of the latter that produced more than a few sniffles in the house.
The ensemble work in the show is notable, especially in “Be Our Guest,” the ensemble dance number of the show. In Robin’s hands, as choreographer, it’s nothing short of a number from 42nd STREET, with multitudes of dancing flatware and dishes bringing everything they’ve got to the stage.
If you are a Disney musical lover, if you’re a fairy tale lover, or if you simply want to see one of the most lavishly and remarkably costumed shows in the region (in itself a sufficient reason to go to this production, especially if you’re a lover of princess ballgowns), you want to be at the Fulton for this show.
In a time when America is feeling anxious, there’s a huge need for lush escapist fantasy. The Fulton’s production is as lush a Disney production as can be imagined, and it’s engrossing. It’s the stage equivalent of a three-scoop sundae with two toppings and extra whipped cream along with the cherry. Just when you think you’ve seen every delight that can be produced on stage, another one comes into view. Is it the dancing? The costumes? The effects? It could be any or all of those at any moment, since there’s an embarrassment of riches here for a Disney lover. If any show production could prove that theatre is more amazing than a film, this could be it.
And if any show could convince youth audiences that picking up a book is the best thing they could do for themselves, there’s that, too. Good things come to those who read, just as they do to those who go to the theatre for this production. It’s a magical mystery tour of all things exotic and Disney, and a piece of set work and staging that raises the bar for regional expectations.
At the Fulton in Lancaster through December 31. If you have a Disney princess of your own, be sure to take her. She could have far worse role models than the smart, resourceful bookworm, Belle. Visit thefulton.org for tickets and information.
Photo credits: Kinectiv