Disney’s new production of Beauty and the Beast, directed by choreographer Matt West, will have you wanting to Be Their Guest time and time again
At long last, Disney’s first animated feature to receive a Broadway adaptation returns to the stage in a glorious new production, directed by original choreographer Matt West, with a stunning partnership between Stanley A. Meyer’s physical set and Darrel Maloney’s incredible projections which breathe fresh life into the beloved musical. Based off the 1991 film (the first animated film to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and recipient of the Academy Award for Best Original Score and Best Original Song), the Broadway production ran from 1994 until 2007, playing a total of 5,461 performances, only closing to make way for Disney’s Broadway version of The Little Mermaid. This latest production alights in the London Palladium for a strictly limited engagement through to September 17 before continuing its tour around UK and Ireland.
Just like the animated film upon which it is based, Beauty and the Beast follows headstrong, bookish Belle, who has grown tired of the confines of her dull, provincial existence, who ends up prisoner to a vicious Beast in order to save her father who had unwittingly trespassed in his castle. While there, Belle meets an assortment of enchanted furniture, such as a clock, a candlestick and affably working class teapot, who were servants of the Beast caught up in a magical curse. Unbeknownst to Belle, in order to break the curse, the Beast must find love before the last petal falls on his enchanted rose, but with the Beast prone to violent outbursts at his hideous appearance, his household staff have their work cut out for them if Belle is to be their salvation.
Like any good adaptation of a film, Beauty and the Beast capitalises upon what was so successful about the film whilst also deepening and enhancing the characters that audiences already know and love. Much like the 2017 remake, the musical adaptation deepens the plight of the curse – making it abundantly clear the stakes that are at play should Belle and the Beast not fall in love. At the same time, however, this production also reduces the threatening nature of the villainous, misogynistic bully Gaston to make him more family friendly – depicting him more as a nuisance than as the odious individual he actually is. While frustrating, as meeting Gaston in real life would undoubtedly be nauseating, it makes sense tonally with the rest of the production.
With a wide range of large-scale locations, from Belle’s small, provincial town, to the terrifying, wolf-infested woods; from Gaston’s raucous tavern to the Beast’s enchanted castle, achieving this on stage is no mean feat. This new production uses a combination of physical set pieces and brilliantly rendered projections to stunningly enhance the stage space. The interplay between set and projection is brilliantly done and almost seamless, and though a front-projection screen descending at key moments betrays the fact that something dramatic is going to happen – and somewhat removes the audience from a key, emotional moment towards the show’s climax – the effect is undeniably striking.
Beauty and the Beast also boasts a supremely talented cast. From start to finish, the entire production is bombilating with energy. Particular highlights include “Be Our Guest”, which is choreographically breathtaking, featuring a massively satisfying, dopamine-inducing tap section, and “Gaston”, which is as rip-roaringly jubilant as any audience member could hope for – especially for what is ostensibly a villain song.
Most of the original Broadway soundtrack remains in tact, though some songs or verses have been removed to make the show feel more streamlined. Act 1 in particular already feels majorly long, even with Maurice and Belle’s “No Matter What” cut to speed up Maurice’s entreating upon the Beast’s castle. The Overture and the Beast’s “How Long Must This Go On?” are also cut from Act 1, with “Maison Des Lunes” and “The Battle” removed from Act 2. For the most part these removals make a lot of sense and make for a far more enjoyable show.
Having said this, cutting a verse from “Home” does create a song of emotional extremes which even supremely talented lead Courtney Stapleton cannot quite pull off and makes the climax of this song feel more emotionally wrought than is earned at that moment. Additionally, while not a problem with this particular production but rather the original as written by Linda Woolverton, the Beast’s song “If I Can’t Love Her” is a beautiful song that mines new depth with the character but would work much, much better at the section of the show where he sends Belle away in Act 2 (in precisely the space where “Evermore” occupies in the live action film), as then his and Belle’s connection would be more than aggressive sparing every other word. It feels a bizarre thing for the Beast to bring up at that moment other than the fact that he is boy and she is girl and fairytales mean that they must ultimately fall in love (Quite frankly, I’m not sure why the Beast never tried to fall in love with any of the pieces of furniture over the past few years. Did the Enchantress make rules against that, or is he just particularly classist? Be careful, Beast, you live in France. The revolution is coming).
A further musical highlight is “Human Again” which is performed and staged beautifully as the enchanted household objects mourn their lost humanity and yearn for the curse to be broken. It’s one of the best songs written for the film (though it was ultimately cut) and it is truly glorious here.
Then there are the two leads. Shaq Taylor is utterly captivating as the Beast. He plays the part with a tremendous physicality and finds incredible depth in the angst and torment of his plight, which the animated film just does not manage to achieve. Not only this but his voice is a commanding, rich rumble that is just heavenly to listen to. Taylor also manages to make the Beast charming and redeemable, which is no tall order considering how closed off and venomous he is required to be when meeting Belle, and this is essential in selling the legitimacy of their romance, even though the entire audience knows how it ends anyway.
Courtney Stapleton is Belle. Belle is often credited for being the first feminist Disney princess (except perhaps Eilonwy – though marketing enjoys pretending that she doesn’t exist), and it is hard to dispute that claim (provided you ignore the whole “falling in love with your captor” thing). Independent, fiendishly intelligent and strong-willed, Stapleton delivers all of this and more and her vocals are simply stunning. It must be incredibly challenging to portray a part that so many people have pre-conceived notions of, especially since Disney have made the (highly appropriate) decision to cast with diversity in mind but Stapleton firmly embodies Belle and provides sorely needed representation. At times, Stapleton is directed to dramatic extremes, however. Though “Home” and “A Change in Me” are absolutely soaring and Stapleton performs each emotion with massive levels of commitment, these moments can be somewhat jarring and lacks a grounded nature that Stapleton is certainly capable, having witnessed her performances in Six.
Beauty and the Beast is a heartwarming, invigorating and visually sumptuous treat and is most definitely the theatrical event of the season. Though its Palladium stint is brief, this reviewer would be incredibly surprised if this production didn’t have a bright future with a return to the West End or, indeed, to Broadway.
Beauty and the Beast runs at the London Palladium until 17 September 2022 before continuing with its UK and Ireland tour. Tickets can be purchased here.