KPBS AIRDATE: July 2, 1997
Tale as old as time: Mega-business makes big bash and big bucks on vintage story. There are so many beauties and beasts in Disney’s bag of toys (and other merchandising items): Can you say Pocahontas-Hercules-and- Hunchback?? But those are cartoonish characters, you may contend. So now, Disney has taken to the legitimate stage — with a vengeance.
Disney-fans will not be disappointed. This is so ornate, so opulent, so colorful, so…. overdone, that you’ll swear the movie animation had sprung to three-dimensional life. Indeed, this multi-million-dollar show fairly screams gilded gelt. It shouts: Get a loada these costumes! Speculate on these spectacular sets! Peruse these pyrotechnics!
Really, though, I kind of enjoyed “Beauty and the Beast.” And I didn’t even have to watch it through the wide eyes of a young child. It’s fun. It’s lavish. It’s downright eye-popping. But having just seen “Ragtime,” which also boasts a very big budget (about $10 million to “Beauty’s” 15), there’s a huge difference between spending money elegantly and with class, versus going full-out for the sheer exorbitant spectacle of it all. This Beast is like… a Phantom with fur.
Okay now, with that off my chest, I can go on to say that there’s lots of talent up there on that stage.
And yes, the costumes are amazing. Though, in the by-now famously opulent “Be Our Guest” number, I kept being distracted by a chorus line of six lovelies that I could not identify: Nope, I already checked off the whisk, the spatula, the eggbeater, the flatware. Who are they? I finally settled, not satisfyingly, on napkin rings… but was that right? Didn’t look like any napkin rings I’d ever seen.
But I loved the cleverness of some of the costumes, and the personality traits that inspired them (Michelle, for instance, was so vain, she was turned into a vanity — drawers, mirror and all). The most delightful costume — and character — is, of course, Lumiere, who brings the house down at the curtain calls. Patrick Page is slim and lithe and swivelly and very French, right down to his sexy puns. Tony Lawson’s Gaston, the overblown muscle-man who looks like a cross between Elvis and Arnold, is also a hoot. Fred Inkley’s Beast is astonishingly both animal-like and agile, and Kim Huber is a very lovely Belle, with a look and voice like the young Julie Andrews.
The music is tuneful and singable, though I consistently preferred composer Alan Menken’s work with his late, great partner/lyricist Howard Ashman to the newer stuff by Tim Rice. The choreography is inventive in that Busby Berkeley style of overkill, but at its best in the highly inventive moves designed for the Doormat, flatteningly portrayed here by Aldrin Gonzalez.
What bothers me, though, is not just Disney’s big business mentality onstage, or that it’s almost an exact replica of a cartoon, but also the underlying messages it not-so-subtly conveys. Belle, remember, is considered a weirdo and an outcast because she loves books. Oh yes, the story does show that you have to look at the person within; a garish exterior like the wild boar-ish Beast’s can hide a heart of gold. And one can also be fooled by black-hearted beauties like the spell-casting enchantress and the self-adoring Gaston. But Gaston also teaches that if you’re muscle-bound and brawny, even though you’re a violent brute and a condescending bully, you will have faithful friends who beg for your pummeling, and women will flock to you in droves. Yeccch. So much for subliminal social messages from the purveyors of family values. Maybe I’m being overly-analytical, but there are some beastly features in this florid “Beauty.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.