It is near the end of the first act—fully 75 minutes into the show—that Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast finally begins to gel. The occasion is “Be Our Guest,” a magnificent show-stopping number that has the stage awash in dancing cutlery and earthenware, everyone singing and cavorting with razzle-dazzle-y smoothness. It is without question the high point of the show, richly deserving of the lengthy, raucous ovation the opening night audience gave it.
I wonder how much of that applause was out of sheer relief, though. Because up to that point, the elements of this technically monstrous show chug along like one of Belle’s wacky father’s inventions—all the parts working sometimes, but never all at once.
To tell this story of enchanted castles and anthropomorphic household items, you either need to A. make a cartoon or B. have several million dollars to spend. The best choice is A., and Disney’s Best Picture-nominated 1991 film is a classic that remains, even in the era of Pixar predominance, unrivaled. Option B opened on Broadway in 1994, with screenwriter Linda Woolverton and composer Alan Menken joined by lyricist Tim Rice to develop the story into a full-fledged stage musical.
The result is a show that may simply be too big for a regional theater, even one as well-funded and creatively ambitious as PTC. On the one hand, you have special-effects-heavy, we-want-it-to-be-like-the-movie moments like Belle’s magic mirror projecting the Beast’s image for all the villagers to see. On the other hand, you have highly theatrical, suspend-your-disbelief elements like the ravenous wolves who, rather than attacking, simply dance in a threatening manner, as if bred by Twyla Tharp. The story doesn’t need adornment, but it has adornment, and so you have to figure out a way to make it all work when it’s live, onstage, and on a budget.
The first hour and 15 minutes of this production are clunky, marked by big characters in bulky costumes ambling around large sets, all while trying to pull off slick, Broadway-style entertainment—a near-impossibility when everything from the actors themselves to George Maxwell’s wonderful rotating set is obligated by gravity and physics to move rather slowly.
The cast, directed by Paul Barnes, seems awkward as it walks through the story of the headstrong Belle (Laura Griffith) longing for more than her provincial life and winding up the prisoner of a cursed man-beast (Gregg Goodbrod) who must learn to love in order to become human again. Darned if they’re not trying, but darned if it just doesn’t come together—all the elements of costumes, staging, music and emotion—until “Be Our Guest.”
From that point on, however, including the entire second act, the show is a whirlwind of energy and focus. Jeremy Stolle is perfectly, delightfully two-dimensional as the fatuous Gaston, and Max Robinson’s performance as the stuffy clock Cogsworth is further proof that the man can do anything. The accents of Lumiere (Dirk Lumbard) and Mrs. Potts (Susan Bigelow) come and go whimsically, but the characters remain lovable.
Laura Griffith’s brassy performance and harsh, over-belted voice don’t fit the character of Belle, though, who ought to be sweeter and subtler. But her acting is good, notably in the later scenes, when her fondness for the Beast comes into play. And the Beast is played with a winning combination of gruffness and self-pity by Gregg Goodbrod, whose melodious voice gives the hideous monster—and the show—a soul.
The story’s poignancy comes through in spite of the early missteps, though. Some of the trappings may be inelegant, but I am touched by its earnestness and heart nonetheless. As the Beast would remind us, it’s what’s underneath that counts.
DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East Through Dec. 24. 581-6961