Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is at the Playhouse Edinburgh from Thu 21 Oct to Sat 27 Nov and this new re-imagining of the stage show (with Disney firmly in control) is obviously a large budget stage production and that is obvious immediately from the quality of the stage sets and costume designs. It is also obvious that a theatrical production on this scale needs the large performance stages, and The Playhouse can provide that and allow this show to look its best.
The original of this fairy tale was written by written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740, and variants of it have been told all over the world for almost 300 years. Like all old fairy tales the original has some very dark overtones, but this take on the story is not only pure “Disney” fairy tale but aligns the story firmly into the pre-existing “Beauty and the Beast” film universe. That has positives and negatives for a stage show, but what the creatives of this production have managed to do is make this tale “magical” and transport its audiences to a fantasy land where reality only has the loosest of grasps. The important message of this story is never lost though; judge a person not by their outward appearance, but by their inner heart.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is many things on stage – a lavish pantomime, which I have to admit is not always to my taste, but it is done so well that you have to just accept that as part of the story, and it does provide for some excellent performances from Gavin Lee (Lumiere), Sam Bailey (Mrs Potts), Nigel Richards (Cogsworth), Samantha Bingley (Madame) and Aimee Moore (Babette). This show is massively popular world-wide, but it is approaching 30 years old and despite this current update, there are still however some stereotypes in this pantomime ensemble, and other parts of the show that Disney do need to deal with at some stage for a 2021 and beyond audience.
The show is also, without doubt, a song and dance spectacular with a high end budget for choreography, costumes, stage sets and a live orchestra which allows our cast and dancers to take us back to the golden days of Hollywood musicals with some choreography tributes to the great Busby Berkely. To do this you of course need some great music and songs, and Alan Menken (composer), Howard Ashman (composer and lyricist) and Tim Rice (composer and lyricist) more than have the talents to do this job well.
Where this show has a weakness however is that the lead roles of Belle (Courtney Stapleton) and Beast (Alyn Hawke) are along with the role of Gaston (Tom Senior) by default reduced all too often to one dimensional characters and no one suffers this fate more that Beast as the format of this story never allows us to explore just what it must mean to feel like a “beast inside” or gives whoever is playing this role a chance to really do that much with it as it is very much a “play by the numbers” one. By comparison, Belle is rarely off stage here and has to carry so much of this show, a task which Courtney Stapleton does very well, and with some nice scenes with her father Maurice (Martin Hall) in here too. Again though, this is just not the setting to delve into the serious drama of a love-story of epic proportions slowly unfolding. Perhaps the person who gets to have the most fun on stage is Tom Senior who as the insufferable and boorish Gaston gets to give us all a totally over the top performance, and is so obviously loving every minute of doing so.
The opening narration by Angela Lansbury, who voiced the role of Mrs. Potts in the 1991 Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast, is a nice connection between stage and film, but also a reminder right from the very start that we are all entering a Disney fairy tale world where everything is sugar coated and likely to turn out well. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and this production is at its core a story for children, and watching how younger (and older) members of the audience were just waiting to enter this “magical world of make-believe” told me the creative team behind this show had got everything right. There are also a few spectacular stage moments, but I have no intention of telling you about them and spoiling the surprise for anyone still planning to go and see this show.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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