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

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.

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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