Disney's Beauty and the Beast

Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; book by Linda Woolverton
Sunderland Empire and touring

Belle and the Beast

What can a reviewer write about Beauty and the Beast? It's an almost archetypal story (first written down in 1740 but obviously a lot older than that) about the deceptiveness of appearances and the triumph of good. It's actually quite a complex story, too, with the attractive young prince being changed into the monster which better fits his character, reflecting the saying that "beauty is just skin-deep", whilst the villagers look with suspicion on Belle for, although beautiful, she is "different" because she enjoys reading. Her father, too, is regarded in the same way because of his difference - his interest in invention and his mechanical skills. Then there's Gaston, universally admired by the villagers because he fulfils their idea of what a man should be, but underneath he is a monster of egotism. Then the healing power of love returns the Beast to his proper shape because he has learned to forget his own self, to think of someone else (Belle), and to earn her love.

Then there's that other, more modern, archetype: the Disney connection. Just as it is almost impossible today to conceive of Snow White in any other garb but that she wears in the Disney cartoon, so for modern children the story of Beauty and the Beast is the 1991 Disney cartoon.

Thus, in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, we have a powerful intermingling of a genuine artchetype with a modern mass media equivalent. And powerful it is too. Even for a hardened cynic like this reviewer, the story grabs you and makes a strong impact. Well, it wouldn't be an archetype if it didn't, would it? And no matter what one might think about the trivialisation and saccherine sentimentality the Disney treatment brings to many, if not most, of the "real people" films, the majority of the cartoons, because (perhaps) they are a step or so removed from reality, get through the defences and kick you in the gut. Is there anything more scary than the wicked queen in Snow White?

Which lengthy preamble brings us to the touring production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. It's spectacular, superbly performed (the transformation of the Beast into the the Prince at the end has to be seen to be believed), full of great characters and, in short, pushes all the right buttons.

The music is not the greatest you'll hear on the music theatre stage - although the title song is, in its context, very moving, and the combination of music, costume and choreography in "Be our guest" is splendid - but it does what it sets out to do. The set (Charles Camm) and costume (Elizabeth Dennis) design are superb, and beautifully complemented by David Howe's lighting (whatever did we do before intelligent lights?).

Although the cast is, nominally, led by Katie Rowley-Jones as Belle and Nic Greenshields as the Beast, it is in fact very much an ensemble piece and every single member of the cast displays tremendous energy, commitment and sheer talent.

I confess that I went along feeling "this is not for me" and expecting an over-hyped piece of sentimentality, and, with the first couple of scenes being very reminiscent of the opening of a panto (the casting of the spell followed by a jolly scene with all the villagers), I felt that my suspicions were about to be confirmed. However, as the first half progressed I began to think again and am now a convert!

"Beauty and the Beast" plays at the Sunderland Empire until 1st October, and the goes on to Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Tunbridge Wells, Hull and Cambridge.

David Chadderton reviewed this production at the Manchester Opera House

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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