Beauty and the Beast review – Disney's fresh new tour fires on all cylinders
Disney's hit musical returns to the stage
First debuted on Broadway 26 years ago, Beauty and the Beast is a story "as old as time" - if that age-old story runs: boy meets girl; girl is bookish oddball; boy is raging, cursed animal but secretly handsome Prince with a candlestick and clock as friends. The plot, the characters and even some of the numbers have leached into the public consciousness – perhaps unsurprising given the original fairytale is almost 300 years old.
Luckily this production is of a more recent vintage, bringing together the music and lyrics of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice with all-new stagecraft, lighting and costume construction. Reuniting many of the original award-winning creative team has resulted in a production that is deferential in all the right places but has gained from 30 years of advances in set design, pyrotechnics and general phantasmagoria.
The son et lumiére in this production is startlingly effective – combining a number of techniques old and new to create something that melds the filmic with the quaint. Encounters with a wolf pack in the murky forests that surround the Beast's castle evoke RKO gothic horror with a dash of German expressionism. Talk about light and shade.
What's more, there's baffling legerdemain on show that can be hard to fathom. Blink and you'll miss the Beast's transformation, arrows pinging across the stage and quite how Iesa Miller's Chip can fit into a tea trolley with none of his body visible. It's classic stagecraft but Beauty And The Beast has borrowed from the big screen, superstar magic and state-of-the-art FX alike to dazzle the audience. The work of illusion master Jim Steinmeyer, A/V man Darrel Maloney and designer Stanley A Meyer combine to spectacular effect.
This would, of course, count for very little without a strong company. Courtney Stapleton and Alyn Hawke are the protagonists tonight (leading man Emmanuel Koto unable to play) and give spirited performances. Understudy Hawke doesn't miss a beat and adds some amusing asides and grace notes to his grumpy chimaera, while Stapleton is every inch the Disney princess, belting out the standards as if her life depends on it.
It's very much an ensemble piece though and this production has a merry panto vibe at times. Sam Bailey's Mrs Potts is a cockernee delight: part teapot; part Babs Windsor. Sam Murphy as Lumiere (Gavin Lee in absentia) seems to channel the French fops who appeared in Blackadder III way back – it's hard not to see some Tim McInnery in him and his partnership with a rather wound-up clock, Cogsworth (Nigel Richards), has plenty to keep kids and adults pleased.
The music rarely threatens to sap the pace, as it can in musicals, and "Be Our Guest" in particular is a full-throttle, all-out assault on the senses: a '60s Vegas take on a Golden Age Of Hollywood song-and-dance spectacular: director and choreographer Matt West has created a mini masterpiece. If you're not initially bowled over by can-can, tap dancing, rear projection, bird's-eye video… well there'll be some tumbling, giant party poppers and an exploding champagne bottle.
It's hard to imagine even those who are no fans of the genre finding much to fault in Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps the diction could, at times, be a little better. Maybe the first half is a shade too long. Arguably the Beast's prosthetics makes him look more like a hairy Ed Miliband than a terrifying monster.
But, much like the Disney mothership, it's fundamentally irresistible and simply sweeps the audience along in its wake. It was all too much for some, and in the lobbies were audience members simply overcome with feeling; overwhelmed by the emotional force of a production firing on all cylinders.