A drizzly Friday night didn’t keep dozens of little girls dressed up as Belle, or the rest of the crowd, away from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the current production at the Walton Arts Center. Their reward was a feast for the eyes and ears, with a new look at a musical more than two decades old.
The basic tale is much older, with the first published version appearing in French in the 1700s. In 1991, Walt Disney Feature Animation made a film based on an early version. That film was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film won Best Original Score, and the title song won Best Original Song.
The creative energy behind this show is impressive. Alan Menken composed the music for the film and theatrical versions of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Howard Ashman was the lyricist for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, along with lyricist Tim Rice, as well as for The Little Mermaid. Linda Woolverton wrote the script for the film and adapted that script for Broadway.
As it goes with fairy tales and Disney movies, this story has a moral: Real beauty and happiness are found inside oneself. This musical treat starts with a story, as an off-stage narrator sets up the tale: A selfish prince refused to help to a beggar woman, so she cast a spell on him and his castle. He became a detested beast, and everyone in the castle started slowly turning into objects. She gave him an enchanted rose, but he has to find love before its last petal falls. Over the years, he becomes angry and bitter, his hope of finding love diminishing. Such a quest for true love is this musical’s “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.”
In the first number, Belle describes how she deeply wants to escape the “provincial life” of her hometown, as she dreams of adventures like those she reads about in books. She feels like a misfit in her town and is seemingly the only girl not interested in the hunky, arrogant Gaston, whose pursues her hand in marriage and mispronounces French words. Belle’s father is a genius inventor with an Einstein-style hairdo. She goes searching for him when he gets lost in the woods. When she discovers him locked in the Beast’s castle, she offers to stay there if her father goes free.
In the castle, Belle meets quite the crew of highly animated people who have mostly transformed into inanimate objects — like a feather duster, teapot, teacup, candelabra, clock and wardrobe. The costumes for these partial objects were very well done, and the cast members created wonderful characters.
The candelabra and clock are buddies who tease each other, often with quick wit and silly puns. The wardrobe, an opera singer, speaks in an amusingly exaggerated voice. Mrs. Potts, the teapot, takes a motherly approach toward Belle.
James May, who plays Cogsworth the clock, wears this role like a comfortable glove. It’s only natural, since he’s performed it more than 500 times. And, Hassan Nazari-Robati brings a wonderfully saucy attitude to his role as Lumiere the candelabra.
Colorful and creative backdrops, screens and set pieces easily made the stage look like a storybook — or animated film — come to life. Technical effects included rolling fog and lightning bolts that punctuated particularly dramatic scenes.
This production offered several wonderful big group numbers. In “Gaston,” Lefou, Gaston’s sidekick, pumps up his ego by expounding on Gaston’s many qualities that he considers desirable. The group clanged together silver beer mugs as an added rhythmic device while they sang and danced in this fun and lively number.
As the Beast tries to win Belle’s affection, he has trouble controlling his temper, and she refuses to dine with him. This leads to another big number, the very memorable “Be Our Guest.” One of the best scenes from the film, this theatrical version was very good in its own right. They pulled out all the stops for this colorful, high-energy number, which starred dancers dressed as dinner forks, spoons and knives, and wrapped in napkins.
Lefou provides many funny moments with his slapstick humor — often tumbling across the stage. Much of the comic action and dialogue in this show is perfectly suited for a live audience, and their reactions, versus what would work better on screen.
Several songs appear in the musical that weren’t in the film, such as “Me,” in which Gaston explains to Belle why she should be his wife, and “Human Again,” which the objects sing in the second act as they dream that the spell could be broken. Darick Pead, as the Beast, showed off his wonderful voice in “If I Can’t Love Her,” a melancholy tune at the end of the first act.
Pead’s costume provides enough heft — and sufficient fur — for the audience to accept him as this creature whose appearance is more frightening than his true self. Still, Pead did a great job of expressing his emotional turmoil and burgeoning love — his inner humanity — mostly through actions and his voice, since his costume limits subtle expressions.
Hilary Mailberger is a natural as Belle, which makes sense. She’s previously played other Disney princesses, including Jasmine in Aladdin and Cinderella. Her voice was particularly gorgeous on “A Change in Me,” another song unique to the musical, in the second act.
In the second act, the Beast saves Belle from a wolf attack in the woods, but he’s injured. Belle brings him back to the castle, instead of trying to escape, and their relationship starts to turn and deepen. They began to consider each other differently, as they each see “Something There” in the other.
Belle reads a book aloud to the Beast, and then she asks him to dinner. In a straightforward scene, they flirt at dinner, as she twirls her long curls, and he twirls his mane. Then, they dance under a huge full moon, as Belle wears the yellow dress that matched so many youngsters in the crowd. All the while, Mrs. Potts sings their song, the sweet, beautiful “Beauty and the Beast.”
One note: There’s a fight between Gaston and the Beast at the castle near the end, with stabbing that might be a bit violent for some youngsters to see.
Still, this is a story that never gets old, no matter how many times it’s told. And this production is a heart-warming experience, best shared with others who still believe in fairy tales.
The show runs about two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Performances of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast continue at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today and at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Walton Arts Center. For tickets and information, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at waltonartscenter.org/.