The stage version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the touring company of which is in Salt Lake City through Aug. 20, has its flaws. But just like its central theme tells us, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Fans of the 1991 animated classic will be delighted that all of the film’s songs remain intact, with several new ones added (by the same composer, so they have the right “feel”). In addition, the film’s dialogue is preserved, except where it’s been replaced by songs that convey the same ideas, or expanded to fit the longer format.
The only significant tweaking is that instead of the Beast’s servants having been fully transformed into household objects, they have only been partially changed, and continue to become more and more like clocks, candlesticks and teapots as time goes on. (This is to accommodate the fact that human-size actors are playing the roles that, in the animated film, were diminutive, anthropomorphized objects.)
Susan Owen plays Belle, the headstrong provincial French gal, with sweetness and a strong singing voice. Grant Norman’s Beast, placed under a curse until he can love a woman and earn her love in return, is difficult to fathom at first because of all the fur and makeup, but one quickly comes to enjoy the character and feel his pain.
Chris Hoch is fantastic as the loutish Gaston. He’s determinedly two-dimensional, playing the role with such firm, dedicated self-importance, a preening, Elvis-coiffed Travolta-wannabe, that he’s the funniest thing in the show.
Some of the others don’t fare as well. Lumiere (Ron Wisniski) and Cogsworth (John Alban Coughlan), while crowd favorites, are overly buffoonish in their behavior. Not only is it more clowny than funny, but it makes it hard to sympathize when they fret about whether they’ll ever be human again, because they seem even more like cartoon characters than their animated counterparts were. Mrs. Potts (Janet MacEwen) and the dresser (Monica M. Wemitt) are much more realistic in their personalities, and the dresser, former opera star Madame de la Grande Bouche, is even a little poignant.
“Be Our Guest” stops the show, and that’s not a compliment. The cartoon version was fantastic, a fast-paced, electrifying display of clever lyrics and toe-tapping music. The stage version has been lengthened and keeps slowing down to allow for big dance numbers. The result is that it’s not nearly as satisfying as the original — a case where bigger is not better.
Belle and the Beast’s night of dinner and dancing, during which Mrs. Potts sings the title song, is much more restrained and therefore much more effective.
There are also some dazzling special effects, from the Beast’s final transformation to the “how do they DO that?” maneuver of having a disembodied boy’s head play the young teacup Chip (Jonathan Press), his body magically hidden through stage trickery.
And it’s hard to criticize a show that has so much humanity and emotion at its heart, often bringing an audience to tears. It clunks here and there, but the non-sappy, stirringly real happy ending covers any tracks it may have left behind.
It would be hard to beat the animated film, which truly is a masterpiece of storytelling, song and beautiful ideas. But the stage version very nearly fills those big shoes by utilizing the same dramatic pacing and earnest love of humanity.
Anna Worthen, who played a few ensemble parts in the show, was a BYU student who auditioned at an opening casting call in Salt Lake City and was hired for the touring company. I interviewed her on the phone before the show came to Utah, and she was pretty excited to be in a big show like this, as you can imagine. Her best role: an anthropomorphic broom with dustpan hands.