BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _EDINBURGH PLAYHOUSE.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _27th NOV 2021.

October 28, 2021
images © Disney/Johan Persson 2021.

Disney have precious few IPs locked away in their vaults with the same level of prestige, acclaim and heritage as Beauty and the Beast. Whilst 1989s The Little Mermaid is widely agreed to have been the beginning of the House of Mouse’s Nineties renaissance (though some film historians point to the surprise success of 86’s The Great Mouse Detective as the real starting pistol for what was to follow), it was with the cultural and critical juggernaut of Beast that Disney made triumphantly clear that not only were they back with a musical bang, but they were staying put. The first animated film to ever garner a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars – and to this day the only one to do so in the fiercely competitive former shortlist of just 5 contenders – and the magnum opus swansong for lyricist Howard Ashman (who sadly succumbed to AIDs in 1991 early into production of Aladdin), Disney’s sumptuous, pitch-perfect take on a ‘tale as old as time’ etched itself indelibly into the history books.

Barring some truly heinous straight-to-video sequels (an unfortunate bi-product of the 90s success story that blighted pretty much every Disney release that decade) and Bill Condon’s serviceable but mostly forgettable live action remake (featuring an unforgivably miscast and autontuned Emma Watson in the lead role), Beauty and the Beast has remained mostly unfettered and sitting pretty amongst the very finest that animation and musicals can offer.

It’s no stranger to the stage, either, with former productions in London, Broadway, and the ever-charming micro-show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Florida. But it has been over 20 years since the West End Production, which scooped the Olivier for ‘Best Musical’ has trodden the boards here in the UK (a successful 2001 tour followed) and with the Mickey monolith basking in the glow of arguably its third golden era (Tangled, Frozen and Moana all say hi), the time was right to once again bring one of its real MVPs back to centre-stage.

Welcoming back Beauty and the Beast veteran Matt West to direct and choreograph (following the early departure of intended director Rob Roth who became embroiled in the unfortunate Scott Rudin Broadway bullying scandal), 2021’s tale carries all the hallmarks, characters and beloved tunes you’d expect, but is a decidedly new production from top to bottom.

An entirely new ‘beast’, if you will.

As a flurry of projected rose petals sweeps across the curtain screen and the welcoming tones of Angela Lansbury (the original film’s ‘Mrs Potts’, but of course you know that, right?) as this production’s Narrator ease us in, it’s clear this is a production that has skimped on neither scale nor artistry. Lansbury’s brief but immediately warming presence quite literally sets the stage, and it’s clear from the off; this is going to be a big, lavish treat that beautifully honours what has come before.

Given the original film’s rather brisk 84-minute (including credits) run time, it’s little surprise to find both the story and score considerably expanded upon here. All the favourites are present and accounted for, from the buoyant scene-setting of ‘Belle’ to the iconic titular ballad (crooned to perfection here by X Factor-winner-turned-stage-supremo Sam Bailey), but so too do we get the choral ‘I want’ stylings of “Human Again”, which itself was restored into the animated film for a number of DVD and Blu-Ray releases, and more postulating character beats such as Beasts “If I Can’t Love Her” (a slightly sombre closer to Act I) and Belle’s more defiant, full-circle “A Change In Me”.

The role of the motherly Mrs. Potts is a pivotal one in Beauty and the Beast, not least of all because it is she who sings the titular anthem. X Factor winner Sam Bailey portrays her in this newest tour, whilst Mary Millar (of Keeping Up Appearances fame) originated the role in London (pictured above). It would be the final role Millar would play, as she sadly passed from Ovarian cancer a year later in 1998.

Of course, much of this was put in place way back when for the original London and Broadway productions, but it helps immeasurably that the presence of much of the film’s original creative talent coalesced around the stage adaption can be felt throughout, not least of all composer Alan Menken for the new tunes the show required, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton to flesh out the book.

With such credentials and calibre of writing (both musically and narratively) in place, one could argue it’s impossible to get Beauty and the Beast wrong. But so too did much of the magic of the 1991 classic nestle somewhere nebulously within the rich, vibrant animation, and the performances of a stellar cast that included such heavy hitters as Jerry Orbach, Richard White and of course, the aforementioned Lansbury.

In place of the original’s animation then (bar a few effective and rather heightened video sequences), the tour’s design team, including scenic lead Stanley A. Meyer, costumier Ann Hould-Ward and lighting designer Natasha Katz, have crafted a truly stunning and opulent stage experience. It is rich, colourful and vibrant throughout, and even some of the less dazzling locales such as the Beast’s dungeon, are all rich with detail and character. Key set pieces, such as the seminal ballroom dance sequence, are as glorious as anything you will see on the West End, and the moving, rotating, twisting clockwork nature of the entire piece, frequently abetted by Darrel Maloney and Jim Steinmeyer’s brilliant video and illusory work framing the stage and sets, is a real wonder to behold. A UK tour scarcely brings with it such a degree of scope and scale.

The role of the motherly Mrs. Potts is a pivotal one in Beauty and the Beast, not least of all because it is she who sings the titular anthem. X Factor winner Sam Bailey portrays her in this newest tour, whilst Mary Millar (of Keeping Up Appearances fame) originated the role in London (pictured above). It would be the final role Millar would play, as she sadly passed from Ovarian cancer a year later in 1998.

Thankfully, the cast assembled rise to the challenge of meeting the spectacle around them. In Courtney Stapleton, Beast presents a decidedly more bookish, contemporary Belle, with Stapleton a dependable lead. She also rips through some of the bigger vocal moments required of her. If Emmanuel Kojo’s Beast is a little too sidelined in the first half to really register, he gets much more to do in Act II, and with both players in fine voice, the relationship between the two gets a chance to blossom and entrench itself in the hearts of the audience.

Tom Senior makes for a dashing and physically imposing Gaston, whilst the ever-dependable Louis Stockil (recently great in the likes of Mamma Mia! And Barnum) does splendid work as a whirlwind, scene-stealing Le Fou. In the performance reviewed, Thomas-Lee Kidd stood in for Nigel Ball as Belle’s father Maurice, giving a suitably dotty turn, even if the clothes and makeup did little to mask him being far too youthful in guise for the role.

Much like the film itself, though, if its romantic duo are its heart, then it’s in the supporting troupe of enchanted items that the magic of Beast really enthrals. Sam Bailey, Emma Caffrey and particularly Samantha Bingley are joyous, vibrant presences on stage as the kindly Mrs. Potts, the flirtatious Babette and bombastic Madame de la Grande Bouche (a.k.a teapot, feather duster and vanity table, respectively), with Bingley and Baily vocal powerhouses both, and Caffrey a sultry, even at-times balletic figure on stage..

But it is Gavin Lee and Nigel Richards as the iconic Lumiere and Cogsworth who regularly threaten to run away with the entire thing. Both offer distinctive, beautifully observed takes on their characters with razor-sharp comedic timing, physicality and peerless on-stage chemistry, whilst still retaining just enough flavour of the original takes on the iconic duo (such as Lumiere’s thick French lilt, or Cogsworth’s panicked fussiness). Every scene with the duo fizzes with madcap comic energy, and rarely are they anything less than laugh-out-loud delights.

Nowhere is all of this praise for Beast – from the original merits of its peerless music to the scope, scale and performances par excellence of this tour – more evident than in its show-stopping, breathtaking realisation of “Be Our Guest”. Again, we’re already in rather legendary territory with Orbach’s original tour-de-force set piece of culinary wordplay and showmanship being itself already regarded as a Broadway revue-styled explosion of colour and choreography on screen. Seemingly taking their cue from the over-the-top, ‘best in show’ stylings of the similar “Friend Like Me” sequence in the recent West Run of Aladdin, here West and his team dial everything up to eleven in an extended, toe-tapping, chameleonic number which utterly dazzles (particular credit going here to Katz’s 42nd Street-on-steroids lighting).

With a proud, celebrated heritage and and an Olivier-nabbing predecessor to follow, this latest production of Beauty and the Beast had enormous shoes to fill, and it succeeds on practically every level. You could pick apart a few minor gripes here and there – the ending showdown, for instance, feels a tad rushed and undercooked compared to its barnstorming animated counterpart, and as mentioned one of the titular characters gets a little overlooked for the first hour or so – but it would be dwelling on blemishes of a decidedly majestic whole.

Bringing both the very best of old and new alike, Beauty and the Beast is a grand, lavish spectacle; a tale as old as time and a grandiose, joyful touring production for the ages.

Disney invite you to ‘be our guest’ once more with a sweeping, glorious restaging of one of their greatest musical experiences. Don’t miss out on the invite.

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