In Disney's prologue to its Broadway blockbuster production Beauty and the Beast (1994), on view now at the Hobby Center via NetWorks, an old beggar woman appeals at the castle door for shelter and other charitable stuff to the majordomo who looks suspiciously like a young Louis XVI. Hey, wait a minute, this isn't some lackey of the king, some underling, it's supposed to be Prince Charming, or at least some reasonable facsimile. In his foppish curly wig and roly-poly appearance, star Sam Hartley does not exude princely presence. Like Sam Goldwyn said about actor Ronald Reagan's run for California governor, “Governor, no, that's all wrong; he should be the friend of the governor.”
Hartley makes a better beast, concealed under bison exterior in Ann Hould-Ward's Tony Award-winning designs. He has a powerfully resonant singing voice, and his Act I anthem closer, “If I Can't Love Her,” written expressly for the show but not in the original score for the animated movie (1991), is sensitively delivered, if staged like a pageant entry for”American Idol” with swirling light cues atop a movable staircase. When Belle declares her love after he lies dying after his fight to the death with he-man Gaston (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek), the beast finally morphs into his real self in a visual extravaganza worthy of Houdini, except who should appear but the foppish Hartley to sweep Belle off her feet. Now, I'm no pre-teen girl but Hartley wouldn't turn my head, even in these politically correct times. He may be cute and sincere, but he's no Prince Charming. Bring back my beast, as Garbo famously cried after viewing Jean Cocteau's extra-magical film.
I think this is the fourth national tour of this famous show, and NetWorks (a non-Equity producer) has put together the same veteran team responsible for the long-running NY run. The show ran on Broadway 13 years! Beauty was Disney's first theatrical adaptation, and its phenomenal success led the way for The Lion King, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tarzan, Newsies, and Mary Poppins – all hits except Tarzan, an epic bomb, but of all adaptations it had the best look. Not as solid nor as filled out as the New York edition, this version is slightly chintzy in every regard except casting. The cast knocks themselves out performing for us, and their exhilaration hasn't dampened after how many months on the road. Praise be to them for unflagging enthusiasm.
Although a scaled-down version, this production still seems small and bit pinched. The ensemble is greatly reduced, lessening the impact of the big chorus numbers, and the built set pieces – that staircase to the rose, that water well, that Art Nouveau-swirl of gothic castle – are a trifle shaky. When Belle and her father (Thomas Mothershed) perch upon the well, it drifts off a few feet. Pursuing Belle, Gaston steps onto the railing of the house and we suddenly fear for the actor's safety.
Padded with seven new Alan Menken songs, with lyrics by Tim Rice, after original lyricist Howard Ashman died before Broadway Beauty was finalized, the show is a rather faithful replica of the animated cartoon. There's no way of course that the stage could possibly replicate the phantasmagorical “Be Our Guest” number, which in the film is an LSD-tinged homage to legendary Hollywood dance director Busby Berkeley, but here it's its own imaginatively-staged show-stopper, due in part to Menken and Ashman's old-time musical magic and choreographer Matt West's ever-enlarging kickline. “Gaston,” the energetic pub song in homage to the antediluvian masculine charms of Gaston, is perhaps even better in the show, with its syncopated beer stein clangs that build and build in complexity.
Feisty, intelligent Belle, the ultimate outsider because she reads books (she's way pre-Matilda) is limed with fresh beauty by Brooke Quintana. She knocks all her numbers out of the park with her warm solid soprano. All the supporting characters are here in full cartoon mode: Ryan N. Phillips makes randy candelabra Lumiere a standout of Chevalier style; Samuel Shurtleff turns fussy mantle clock Cogsworth into a worthy MGM character actor; Stephanie Gray, as Mrs. Potts, sings the show's Oscar-winner “Beauty and the Beast” with earthy warmth; Melissa Jones, as sexy feather duster Babette, is appropriately Follies Bergere; Stephanie Harter Gilmore supplies wardrobe Madame de la Grande Buche with old-world charm. Only Matt Dasilva, as Gaston's toady LeFou, wears out his welcome tout de suite with his constant pratfalls and cartoony antics abetted by sound effects. It's not DaSilva's fault, it's written into the script – a holdover from the movie characterization – but couldn't he be toned down just a bit? Even the kids in the audience, so receptive to him from the start, grew ominously silent as the show went on.
Even if the little ones have seen the DVD a thousand times, there's no excuse for them to miss Beauty and the Beast live on stage. It's not the same, and that's the point. The message is noble (don't judge a book by its cover), the dancing sparkles, the singers are very fine, the characters are funny, and, oh, those songs! Of the new additions to the score, only “Human Again,” with its Parisian boulevard insouciance, rises to the exceptional level of the movie's iconic numbers, but you can't have everything, not even on Broadway. Like the best of Disney, Beauty and the Beast takes you far away to a better place.
Beauty and the Beast continues through May 1 courtesy of Broadway at the Hobby at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For for information call 713- 800-982-2787 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $50-$135.