The Review: Paper Mill Playhouse’s Beauty and the Beast
I have to say that I desperately needed my young up and coming theatre junkie, Hazel sitting beside me for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast currently being staged at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Through a young child’s eyes, I believe, is about the only way to really be enthralled by this particular take on the tale as old as time with its singing teapots and candlesticks. It’s a beautifully harmonic and serviceable production, as directed with a far too straight forward style by Mark S. Hoebee (PMP’s The Sting), leading a cast of solidly voiced professionals through the commercial task of presenting this unlikely love story that has become, over the years, an international sensation. The film-to-stage adaptation, based on Walt Disney’s Academy Award-winning 1991 animated musical film of the same name – which in turn had been based on the classic French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, has played to more than 35 million people in 13 different countries after first taking its Broadway stage bow on April 18, 1994, with Susan Egan and Terrence Mann as the eponymous Belle and Beast, respectively. The musical initially opened to mixed reviews, but was an astonishing commercial success and well received by audiences. The crowd at this opening night seem to be just as enchanted, but I’m thinking I really needed Hazel beside me to brighten my night and see this thing through her eyes to really enjoy its charm.
Hazel would have been the perfect date, as she was so much fun to be with when she was hypnotized by PMP’s Annie, Broadway’s Frozen, Wicked, and Cinderella, but unfortunately for me, she had to sit this opening night performance out. Sunday nights are difficult, it seems for the young theatre goer. But from looking at the young girl sitting a few seats away in the perfect little princess dress, and listening to the sounds of young children around me giggling with glee, they were all having a splendid time skipping along into this enchanted fairy tale like it was a jovial comic book. I only wish that this production found a way to rise to the occasion just enough that for us adults, even the ones who have a joyous fondness for the film, could also relish in the richness and wonder of the ageless tale. But from the get-go, when an evil spell scenario is projected with a sloppiness of a poorly done shadow puppet play (one that appears to be pre-recorded earlier on – so it should have been better and smoother) the pages of this classic tale start to feel as old fashioned weathered as an old hard copy left out in a snow storm for a good 25 years.
The fun and very familiar story is still all there, with the joyful and charming music by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors), sweet lyrics by Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid) & Tim Rice (Chess), and a well paced book by Linda Woolverton (The Lion King) but the production, which leaned to heavy on the ‘stand center stage and sing out big with big wide arms at the end of every song’ directive, never manages to rise above the obvious and the straight forward. The choreography by Alex Sanchez (Public’s Giant) had a pleasant joy and energy, flinging the ensemble here and there with glee, and the music direction by Michael Borth (National tour of The King and I) filled the space melodically, but the technique in the telling is as standard as it comes, and at times, almost sub-par. Yes, I’m talking about you poor stuffed wolves being wheeled out and thrown about with abandonment rather than with sly inventiveness.
Belinda Allyn (Broadway’s Allegiance) as Belle is delightfully lovely and strong willed, filling the theatre with her glorious voice and desirous dreaming, just like her father, Maurice, played sweetly by Joel Blum (Broadway’s Show Boat, Vineyard’s Kid Victory). The two play off each other well and with charm, but it’s not good that a puppet goose can almost steal the thunder in the “waking up to say Bonjour” opening moments.
As Gaston, the very handsome and sparkling grinned Stephen Mark Lukas (Broadway’s Book of Mormon) muscles out all the right stops, flexing with abandonment (maybe a bit too often), but he’s sadly harnessed with much too many ‘boinks‘ and ‘pongs‘ of cartoon slapstick silliness to give him much strength and width of character. He’s obviously in the center spotlight of the joke, much like Lefou, portrayed by Kevin Curtis (2ST’s Invisible Thread) and the Silly Girls (Brittany Conigatti, Corinne Munsch, Alexa Racioppi), who get the brunt of this directive and are mostly one-note wonders; enjoyable and playful, but as directed, get somewhat boring and predictable over time. I feel for them as they run around the stage screaming and fussing about, as this is more the angle and vantage of this particular production, looking for childish wonderment and giggles at the cost of adult scrutiny and smarts.
The scenic design by Kelly James Tighe (Off Broadway’s Almost Heaven) has qualities of creativity and storybook sensitivities with an honest sensibility of purpose. Bell’s country cottage is just the right amount of comfiness and homeyness, and the rotating castle made up of lush chambers and swirling stairs generally works its cartoonish magic, until somewhere near the finale which lacks any real drama or tension. The costumes by Leon Dobkowski (PMP’s Annie) look straight out of an amusement park character closet, while the enchanted objects design by Halsey Onstage rise to the occasion and are quite striking. The lighting by Charlie Morrison (PMP’s Mary Poppins) and sound by Matt Kraus (Broadway’s Liza at the Palace) both do the job, but the overall effect of this Beauty feels too much like an old dated production trying to mimic Broadway, rather than a well crafted and inventive revival of a charming musical classic.
The heart of the piece though resides in the Beast, and as portrayed by the well voiced Tally Sessions (Broadway’s War Paint), the match with Belle is good, clear, and well formulated with child-like innocence and wonder, but their chemistry seems strangely juvenile and comically gentile. Gavin Lee (Broadway’s SpongeBob…) livens up the living room with a completely wonderful Lumiere, matched beautifully with the stressed out Cogsworth, played perfectly by Kevin Ligon (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!), and the endearing Mrs. Potts, played enchantingly by Stacia Fernandez (Broadway’s The Drowsy Chaperone). Her mastery of the title song, so lovingly embedded into our collective brain by the phenomenal Angela Lansbury does just the trick, as does the fun and flamboyant Madame de la Grande Bouche, portrayed with a flair by Donna English (Broadway’s Living on Love), and the feisty and sexy Babette, smashingly played by Jenelle Chu (Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet). Chip (Gianni David Faruolo/Antonio Watson) is wheeled in and out in typical fashion, and the big number that we remember from the film is well orchestrated and entertaining. I just wish the whole was as enchanted as the lively castle’s furniture and the feisty town folk that arrive to break down its flimsy doors.
Beauty ran on Broadway for 5,461 performances for thirteen years (1994 – 2007) becoming Broadway’s tenth longest-running production in history. I did not see the Broadway production back in the day, but I can only guess that so many of the moments were done on Broadway less clumsily and with far more finesse then shown here at Paper Mill. Back in its day, I’m sure that Beauty was a joy to behold and as breathtaking as that chandelier that crashed down on the Phantom of the Opera. But all things of this nature start to feel dated if they are not recreated with a wise nod to their glorious past, but with a tweak and an upgrade from the present for their future audiences. I wanted that wonder, but I never felt that child-like sense of wide eyed excitement that Hazel might have felt had she been by my side. This production is a touching homage to that older one, most definitely, but I hope that the recent announcement from Disney Theatrical President Thomas Schumacher that a revival is in the works will herald a newer and smarter re-imagining, because if this one is any indication, I’ll probably not want to be their guest at a similarly styled telling of this tale.