BWW Review: North Carolina Theatre's BEAUTY & THE BEAST
Based on Disney's 1991 Academy Award-winning animated film of the same name as well as the classic French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, Beauty & the Beast tells the story of a bright, beautiful young woman who doesn't seem to fit in with her hometown. She later finds herself trapped in the enchanted castle of a cold-hearted prince who had been magically transformed into a hideous beast as punishment for his selfish ways. To revert back into his true human form, the Beast must first earn the love of this woman before it's too late.
When the animated film became a big success after it was released in movie theaters on November 22nd, 1991, the New York Times' chief theatre critic at the time, Frank Rich would one month later call Beauty & the Beast the best Broadway musical he had seen all year. It was that rave that pretty much gave Disney the idea of bringing the film to the stage, thus marking their very first venture onto Broadway. The stage adaptation premiered in New York on April 18th, 1994, and while it was an enormous success that introduced Broadway to a family audience, it was still met with criticism from critics and industry insiders. Many of them felt it was a glorified theme park show, they also felt nervous about a corporate company like Disney taking on Broadway (this of course, was three years before The Lion King came about). On the bright side, Beauty & the Beast still managed to receive 9 Tony Award nominations (including Best Musical), and a run of 5,461 performances after closing on July 29th, 2007.
Before I start talking about the production that's currently playing at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium through July 30th, let me start by talking about the adaptation. Book writer Linda Woolverton, who adapted her own screenplay for the stage has done a pretty straight forward job. Though the most that's different in the stage adaptation is that there's a little more to the story than there already was in the animated film, most notably the race against the clock element with the servants of the castle losing their humanity throughout as they're turning into inanimate objects. The show also contains all the classic songs by Alan Menken & Howard Ashman (in what turned out to be their final completed collaboration as Ashman sadly died of AIDS about several months before the film's release), as well as new ones by Menken and Tim Rice that blend in very seamlessly.
As for this production, it's got a very talented cast led by Catherine Charlebois, who perfectly captures all of the characteristics of Belle. She's spunky, funny, charismatic, and a woman who can easily stand up for herself. As the Beast (a role originated on Broadway by NCT alumni Terrence Mann), actor Ben Michael not only shows us the monster that character can be on the outside, but also the human he is on the inside. He very successfully sells the audience on the arc he goes on from selfish prince, to a real gentleman. Peter Saide steals the show as the narcissistic, yet villainous Gaston, who will stop at nothing to marry Belle. Heartfelt performances come from Ann Van Cleave as the maternal head of the castle's kitchen turned teapot, Mrs. Potts and Lamont Wade as Belle's loving, yet eccentric father, Maurice. Comedic highlights include Dirk Lumbard as the maitre turned candelabra, Lumiere; Michael Brian Dunn as the head of the castle turned mantle clock, Cogsworth; Matthew Simpkins as Gaston's bumbling sidekick, Lefou; Talia Robinson as the maid turned feather duster, Babette; and Aimee Henderson as the opera singer turned wardrobe, Madame de la Grande Bouche.
Under the direction of Sam Scalamoni, the production also very successfully goes from comedic moments to heartfelt moments throughout the whole show at such an amazing pace. Not to mention that anyone who knows the stage adaptation very well (like yours truly) will be able to spot all the details he's been able to implement into the staging. There's also big production numbers that are very skillfully choreographed by Michael Whitney.
Overall, the adaptation has everything you know and love about the animated film, yet also stands on its own. This show has something for everyone, a great musical comedy with lots of heart. Kids will certainly love it, while adults will likely feel just as enamored with it. Audiences of all ages should feel entertained 'No Matter What'.
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