A tale as old as time … or at least 276 years when the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast was published in 1740. Since then, the story has been made into films and TV shows with various spins to the origin story, but the most famous version now is Disney’s animated classic from 1991 which helpes rejuvenate Disney’s animation division and became the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
When Disney decided to venture on to Broadway, Beauty and the Beast was the inaugural show, opening in 1994 and running till 2007 for 5,461 performances, earning nine Tony Award nominations and winning one for Ann Hould-Ward’s costume design. The show has become a popular choice for high school productions, and has had several national and world tours since 1995. A current national tour is now playing in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Theatre through May 15 before moving on to Springfield, Illinois and Springfield, Missouri, Detroit, Chicago and other venues, ending July 19 in Kansas City.
Of course, if you’ve seen the Disney movie you already know the story of the beautiful Belle, the “odd” girl in her small village who loves to read and has a father who creates wacky inventions. Belle is pursued by the village hunk Gaston, who has set his sights on marrying her, much to the chagrin of the other girls in the village. When Belle’s father gets lost in the forest one night, he comes upon a castle full of enchanted beings who warn him not to stay. But the master of the domain, a monstrous Beast, puts the old man in the dungeon. When he doesn’t come home, and Gaston won’t help, Belle takes it upon herself to find her father. When she comes to the castle and meets the Beast face-to-face, she offers herself in exchange for her father. The Beast’s condition is that she remain there forever. She agrees.
What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and everyone else in his castle had a curse visited upon them when he, as a Prince, refused to accept a rose from an old hag. She turned out to be a beautiful enchantress, and cursed him to become the same beast on the outside that he was on the inside. An unfortunate side effect of the curse was that all of the servants were slowly changing into objects. The only way to break the curse is for the Beast to fall in love, and have that love reciprocated … something the staff hopes will happen with Belle, if only the Beast can learn some manners.
Of course, we all know how the story ends, but getting there is all great fun with the highly imaginative stage musical that truly brings the animated film to vibrant life. The show has a very heightened sense of reality, with many of the performances completely over-the-top, almost a bit too cartoonish, but still fun nonetheless. There is plenty of humor in the book by Linda Woolverton, enough to keep the kids entertained while also adding just a little more adult humor (particularly with the borderline lascivious Lumiere) that refrains from being too grown up.
Sets, costumes, wigs and lighting design add immensely to the enjoyment factor, literally translating the classic looks from the cartoon into real life, from Gaston’s gloves to Belle’s yellow ball gown. It’s like the animated characters stepped right off the screen and onto the stage. The show has several big musical numbers that garner well-earned, rousing applause from the audience, including “Gaston” which features some amazing choreography with metal beer steins, and “Human Again” which spotlights all of the Enchanted Objects of the castle.
Of course, the movie’s two most famous numbers are included in the show as well. As soon as the first notes of “Beauty and the Beast” start to play, the audience can’t help but clap even before the song starts, and Stephanie Gray as Mrs. Potts does a lovely job with it, even if Belle and the Beast are getting all of the attention as they waltz around the ballroom of the castle. The real showstopper is the “Be Our Guest” number with Belle and all of the Enchanted Objects, sets changes, Vegas-style lighting, giant champagne bottles, and streamers that shoot out into the audience. Everyone involved on stage and behind the scenes earns every moment of applause (and probably the longest of the show) the audience gives. And Ryan N. Phillips as Lumiere has great fun teasing the audience at the top of the number, slowing dragging out those three words, building the anticipation for the audience of what is to come.
The cast overall is very good, with some actors really hamming it up for their characters. Brooke Quintana as Belle has a very lovely voice and really resembles the animated Belle. She also does a wonderful job with what is probably the most thankless role, because even though she is one of the main characters, Belle has to remain the more grounded, realistic one out of everyone else in the show. She has to make us believe Belle truly does fall in love with the Beast, and Quintana does that superbly, especially during the show’s climactic moment, even eliciting a few misty eyes from the audience. The Belle character may not be a standout, especially with a Beast and talking candlesticks, but Quintana makes her the anchor of the show, grounding the story in as much realism as she can.
Sam Hartley is also terrific as the Beast, having to emote under heavy makeup and costuming, making the Beast frightful yet sympathetic at the same time. Hartley does make the Beast gruff and frightening, especially when Belle first arrives, but he also makes you feel for him as he begins to feel for Belle and is completely our of his depths when it comes to romance. Luckily he has a household full of talking objects to help guide him along. Hartley gives a terrific performance and has a very nice voice as well.
Ryan N. Phillips, Samuel Shurtleff, Melissa Jones and Stephanie Grey are the main Enchanted Objects, with Shurtleff bringing appropriate bluster to Cogsworth the clock, and Grey brings a lovely motherly touch to Mrs. Potts. Jones is the coquettish maid-turned-feather duster Babette, and Phillips works hard to steal every scene he’s in with his witty asides, self-illuminating candles and sassy body language. The kids may find him just funny, but he’s definitely playing to the adults in the room.
Of course, one of the biggest standouts of the cast is Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as the blowhard Gaston. The character is a self-centered jerk, and the real villain of the piece, with muscles that are much bigger than his brain. He could easily be very unlikable as he pursues Belle, sings about himself, and attempts to have Belle’s father carted off to the looney bin in some twisted notion that by doing so he can win Belle over (or is he trying to get back at Belle for snubbing him?). Smith-Kotlarek makes Gaston’s super-ego endearing somehow, and he has a voice that’s as smooth as butter. With his stature and physique, Smith-Kotlarek could star in a revival of Li’l Abner once his time as Gaston comes to an end.
Beauty and the Beast brings a real Broadway experience to the touring houses, and it’s a great show to use as an introduction to musical theatre for kids who may have never been to a live show. It’s bright and colorful with amazing sets that can change from the interior of the castle to the village square and back again in the blink of an eye. It’s got great music and performances, and there are even puppets! The show really has everything one could want in a traditional Broadway musical, and you’ll certainly feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth by the time the curtain falls.