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Taming the Beast ... and teaching him to tapdance.

In Disney and TUTS' Beauty and the Beast, we've an entertaining "spectacular," but where is my beautiful metaphor for male potency?

After she had watched the classic 1946 Jean Cocteau film version of the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast -- which closes, of course, with the transformation, by love, of the animal-like monster into a conventionally handsome young man -- the writer Colette's complaint became legendary: "Bring back my beautiful beast!" Now the story itself has undergone a couple of further transformations -- Americanized and Disneyized -- first into an undeniably dazzling and award-winning 1991 Disney cartoon feature, and now backwards to the stage, into something called (at least in the endlessly reproduced logos) Disney's Beauty and the Beast The Musical. The show had its world premiere this month in Houston (en route to Broadway) as Theatre Under the Stars' Christmas spectacular. (Although the show is a joint effort of TUTS and Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, Disney is clearly paying the piper and calling the tune. Their first deep-pockets attempt at Broadway, much is riding on its being a blockbuster hit.)

It's only slightly churlish to suggest that Colette's lament remains more than a little appropriate. This is a story whose happily romantic ending has always seemed to contradict everything that has gone before it, especially its explicit Moral: "Real beauty is within the heart." (In the background one hears the hard-earned wisdom of the Hollywood producer: maybe -- but audiences don't like ugly.)

Nevertheless, like its animated predecessor, the new musical is really quite entertaining. In this context that may seem like faint praise, since on the advertising, promotion and packaging level, this is a show that screams for headline superlatives: SENSATIONAL! SPECTACULAR! UNFORGETTABLE! What I mean is: I enjoyed it, my family enjoyed it, and if you're willing to wade through the cost, the glitz and the multi-merchandising distractions, you'll probably enjoy it too.

Though it may seem by now that the show was created by a corporation, there are actually real people who made Beauty, and their talent is in ample evidence. The Alan Menken/Howard Ashman film score, with additional songs by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice, is lightly charming, and there's only a bit of a dropoff from the late Ashman's more delicate word-play to Rice's characteristically ham-handed rhymes. Linda Woolverton has without fuss adapted her screenplay for the stage, and though the dialogue never misses a chance to go cute, there's not enough of it to get in the way of the music or the narrative. Thanks to costumer Ann Hould-Ward and set designer Stan Meyer, and magical illusions by Jim Steinmeyer, the show for the most part looks terrific, though sometimes too much so -- there's so much scenery flying around between scenes that the actors are dodging it, and the busy-ness of the whole production is a persistent distraction.

That overkill, I think, is the characteristic Disney touch, a self-defeating attempt to be more animated than a cartoon. The film's big production number, "Be Our Guest," made chameleonic delight out of the cartoon-silly conventions of singing and dancing furniture and utensils. But what is evanescent on screen is earthbound and farcical on stage. The song is still okay, but frenzied forks and spatulas, long-legged babes as napkin holders, and a cornucopia of stairways, sparks and exploding champagne bottles accumulate, alas, into a give-the-yokels-what-they-want commercial for Las Vegas. (You go on ahead. As for me, I'm never so depressed as when somebody is trying to bludgeon me into having a good time.)

Yet despite these irritating and no doubt inevitable flourishes (you can't sell Broadway-priced tickets without certified fireworks), the core of the show is solid and the performances convincing. Susan Egan as Belle is girl-next-door engaging, and she has a lovely mezzo that carries well her light romantic tunes. Of the costume-covered Beast, Terrence Mann, it's difficult to say much about his acting, but he's convincingly intimidating, occasionally catlike -- his amplified growls and echo-closet howls are ingratiating, his amplified vocals emotionally proficient. Tom Bosley, as Belle's ingenuous inventor father, Maurice (a sort of costumed update of his phlegmatic Happy Days dad) has a bit much of the Keebler elf about him, but as Dads these days are supposed to be, he's inoffensive.

he most entertaining roles are the boffo comic ones: Burke Moses as Belle's macho suitor, Gaston, and Kenny Raskin as his clownish sidekick with the telltale name, Lefou. Both of these characters are Disney additions to the tale, and they're the most successfully cartoonish. With his hair gelled high on his head and his pop-eye muscles, Gaston seems to be literally an animated swagger, and Moses lends him a finally likable buffoonery, like a one-time high-school football hero who doesn't quite get the joke. He is matched by Raskin, who is also adroit at physical comedy, and their big numbers together gain much from the freedom to be purely foolish, without a subtext of pop moralizing. Similarly, the Beast's castle furnishings -- played by Gary Beach (Lumiere), Beth Fowler (Mrs. Potts), Heath Lamberts (Cogsworth), Eleanor Glockner (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Stacey Ann Logan (Babette) and Brian Press (Chip) -- provide a lot of childlike fun just by being animate objects. At times they can seem wonderfully like Claes Oldenburg sculptures come to life.

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