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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?

The obvious rap against a stage version of a film cartoon is, why bother? For Disney the test will obviously be financial, and if they (and TUTS) can turn a Òhighest-grossing" animated film into a high-grossing Broadway tourist attraction with endless secondary merchandising possibilities, you can bet that Houston will see more of the same grossness. One can't blame them for wanting to put bums-in-seats, but indeed it's a shame for Houston and national theater if the mass-market audience that has been trained only to buy what it has bought before should drive out of the market such lovely new work in the grand American musical tradition as last season's Sayonara. No dancing flatware or fireworks, I'm afraid, in that one.

For the moment the proof, as ever, is in the pudding. One can just as easily argue that this Beauty is a happy marriage of the most literally superficial film art -- animation -- with its most artificial theatrical cousin -- the musical -- each dedicated to that inscrutable American esthetic of absolute innocence, "Entertainment." In a cartoon there are neither shadows nor depth, and once again the Disney machine has found a way to turn a potentially disturbing myth of sexual danger into a pleasantly reassuring tale of rediscovered innocence.

Which returns us, of course, to Colette, who understood immediately that the threatening "beast" of the castle is an image of male energy far more powerful than the elegant prince who finally replaces him. In the original, boldly allegorical tale, Beauty goes looking for power in the forest (the beast who has captured and will usurp her father) and when she finds him, she offers herself to him. In the Disney version (a '90s update of the feminized '50s), the only surviving representative of untamed Eros is poor dumb Gaston, and he is, by definition, dead meat. Belle teaches the Beast good manners; in return, he sheds his beastly masculine exterior and becomes a beautiful hunk of nobility. (Revised Moral: If you hold out long enough, he'll stop howling at the moon, comb his hair, put on a suit and tie, and get a job.)

In myriad form, this has always been the central myth of pop romance, and Beauty and the Beast retells it as well as any, with verve and comic style. But if you find your dreams troubled by something deeper than the Disney version, consider yourself lucky. Fairy tales are too dangerous, and too powerful, to be left to the kids.

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