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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton
Disney Theatre Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester

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Courtney Stapleton as Belle and Shaq Taylor as Beast Credit: Johan Persson
Gavin Lee as Lumiere and Courtney Stapleton as Belle lead the company Credit: Johan Persson
Nigel Richards as Cogsworth, Sam Bailey as Mrs Potts, Gavin Lee as Lumiere Credit: Johan Persson
Tom Senior as Gaston and Louis Stockil as Le Fou lead the company Credit: Johan Persson
Shaq Taylor as Beast Credit: Johan Persson
Tom Senior as Gaston and Courtney Stapleton as Belle Credit: Johan Persson

On screen, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was an artistic leap forward merging cinematic techniques with traditional cartoon storytelling to confirm Walt Disney’s faith in the artistic qualities of animation. The current stage tour of the show pays tribute to its origins with the recorded voice of Disney veteran Angela Lansbury acting as narrator. Manchester’s Palace Theatre continues its welcome approach of staging shows where the quality is so high it is hard to believe they are touring productions.

Although Disney’s Beauty and the Beast follows the storyline of the French fairy-tale, of a selfish prince cursed to live in the form of a beast until freed by true love, it brings modern sensibilities to the original. All of the characters are realistically flawed. Belle (Courtney Stapleton) is a modern heroine, well-read and apparently open-minded but a bit of a snob looking down on her provincial neighbours. Although written as a bully, Shaq Taylor plays Beast as an overgrown child, achingly vulnerable, afraid of rejection and pushing away anyone who might offer him affection. Both of them have to overcome their self-imposed limitations to achieve maturity and love.

Tom Senior’s Gaston conceals a truly nasty, literally back-stabbing, nature beneath an outwardly boisterous personality. The current production is bang up to date with the list of happy lovers brought together by Samantha Bingley’s matchmaking Madame including a same-sex couple and Belle’s specs reflecting the recent campaign to include more characters wearing glasses in Disney productions.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a smooth production that flows seamlessly from one scene to another. Stanley A Meyer’s scenic designs, projected onto a translucent curtain, allow almost cinematic speed in changes of scene. The musical moves rapidly from an idyllic picture book village to a dark wood full of wolves. Although very much family entertainment, director Matt West allows a hint of menace to develop when needed. The final confrontation takes place amid a pouring rainstorm, drawing out the full drama of the showdown.

The humour in the musical is understated; slapstick is avoided and most of the gags arise from the characters: the staff of the enchanted castle desperately trying to persuade the man-child Beast to grow up and Gaston being a Frenchman incapable of pronouncing ‘rendezvous’. Likewise, although the show is spectacular, many of Jim Steinmeyer’s special effects are discreet. Chip, the enchanted teacup, is pushed around on a tea-trolly designed to make the audience wonder where the actor’s body is concealed as only his head is visible.

The atmosphere is subtly different between the two acts. The first builds to a gobsmacking spectacular climax while the second is more reflective, even dramatic, as the characters complete their journeys. Matt West, who directs and choreographs, builds anticipation gradually. Gaston’s comedic dance routine in the tavern serves as an appetiser for the full-blown glory of "Be Our Guest". West seems determined to use the sequence to pay tribute to every possible dance style—as the story is set in France, the "Can-Can" obviously features, but the centrepiece is a meticulously staged Busby Berkeley routine for which the rear wall becomes a reflective surface to ensure the full effect is appreciated. Yet West does not allow spectacle to dominate; Courtney Stapleton high-kicks and tap dances along with the chorus only to decline charmingly when invited to perform the splits. The choreography in the second act is more intimate, in particular the simply staged but delightful waltz between Belle and Beast.

West uses the conclusion of the first act to demonstrate the show is about passion rather than shallow spectacle. Rather than conclude the first half with a dance routine that has the audience standing and cheering, Shaq Taylor becomes the emotional centre for the show ending with an anguished performance of "If I Can’t Love Her".

If the description had not already been used in another Disney production, one would have to say Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is practically perfect in every way.

Reviewer: David Cunningham