It’s a tale as old as time: A curious, well-read young woman encounters a horrifying, ill-tempered monster and becomes his prisoner, and they find themselves falling in love in spite of his appearance and temperament.
You’ll no doubt recognize that as the setup for “Beauty and the Beast,” the 18th-century French fairy tale that was most famously retold in a beloved 1991 Disney feature, the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. The movie was then adapted for the stage in 1994 and became one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history, and it’s easy to see why.
This is a classic, lovingly realized story, full of wonder, mystery, humor and romance, and it boasts some terrific songs that you’ll be humming on your way home from the theater. “Beauty and the Beast” kicked off Spokane Civic Theatre’s 70th season last weekend, and it’s a polished production with a skilled cast, and while it doesn’t erase our memories of the ’91 film, it’s entertaining on its own terms.
The story centers on the beautiful mademoiselle Belle (Kaitlin Webster), who always has her nose buried in a book and dreams of visiting faraway places. She’s considered an odd duck in her provincial village, but she’s being wooed by the strapping but boorish Gaston (Cecil Trail), who is determined to marry Belle despite a lack of interest that is obvious to everyone but him.
When her father (Bob Francis), an absentminded inventor, goes missing, Belle braves the nearby woods and stumbles upon a castle where the Beast (Jack Siebel) resides. He’s chained up Belle’s father in his cellar, but he agrees to let the old man go if Belle will stay and take his place.
The Beast, we learn, was once a handsome young prince, having been transformed into a furry, horned creature after refusing an enchantress sanctuary in his castle. Also affected by the spell is the Beast’s live-in staff, who are slowly turning into inanimate objects – there’s the candelabra Lumiere (Preston Loomer), the grandfather clock Cogsworth (Dan Griffith) and the maternal tea kettle Mrs. Potts (Misty Cusick). They’ll all turn back into humans if the Beast can find love, and it becomes clear that Belle is his last chance.
The stage version of “Beauty and the Beast” lifts all of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s brilliant songs right from the film, and they’re still enchanting after all these years. The film’s most popular numbers (“Belle,” “Gaston” and the Oscar-winning title tune) are among the best in any Disney feature, and they’re also the best in the Civic production: The splashy, celebratory “Be Our Guest,” with its dancing plates and silverware, is certainly the standout.
But the musical additions courtesy of Menken and lyricist Tim Rice (Ashman died shortly before the film’s premiere in 1991) often impede the forward momentum of the show. Too many of them are drippy, forgettable ballads that lyrically reiterate what we already know, though the cast performs them admirably. One of the exceptions is “Human Again,” which was cut from the original film and is a welcome addition to the show.
It’d be difficult to recapture the magic of the Disney movie, which is certainly one of the studio’s finest features. But this show does occasionally channel the magic of its source material, and much of the charm of “Beauty and the Beast” is courtesy of its colorful supporting cast. In fact, some of the fringe characters are so delightful that the burgeoning romance between Belle and the Beast sometimes fades into the background: I particularly enjoyed Trail as Gaston and Grady O’Shea as his lackey LeFou, clearly relishing the chance to play dumb, and Loomer as the debonair candlestick channeling Maurice Chevalier.
Perhaps it’s a good decision, then, to push those characters to the forefront, because they bring the production, directed by Jack Phillips, to life. I found the show’s first act to drag a bit – perhaps I’m unfairly comparing it to the zippy pacing of the movie – but it seriously picks up steam by the time Belle reaches the Beast’s palace. It’s handsomely mounted, Summer Berry’s costumes are eye-catching, and Webster and Siebel provide a warm emotional center.
And even if you’ve seen the Disney film a hundred times, you’ll probably still get caught up in the story anyway. It’s a song as old as rhyme, but it’s one you won’t mind revisiting.
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