The traveling tour for Broadway's version of the Disney film Beauty and the Beast came sweeping into San Jose last night, and I was so excited I could barely contain myself. After all, the animated classic is one of my favorite movies, and for years I'd heard that the Broadway show was beautiful. Masterful. Magical. Takes your breath away. I've wanted to see it for ages, and it finally came to San Jose.
So as I sat in the theater with Seanie and Jeannie and the lights went low, I was nearly trembling with excitement. As the prologue narrated the Prince's transformation into the Beast, I found myself settling down...but not in a good way. The seats that we'd received were high in the balcony and to the right, so it was actually hard to see the details of the show. It's hard to keep your heart pitter-pattering when you're squinting to see the action. And each of our seats cost $82, the same amount paid by the lucky folks sitting front and center in the orchestra seats below...but that's actually a whole separate rant, so I'll lay that aside for now to talk about the show. (But I will have strong words about the way the theater is managed in another post.)
Right. Beauty and the Beast. So after the introduction, the scene opens on Belle as she walks through town on her morning errand. Now, from where we were sitting her clothing looked rather drab and plain, but in the photograph you can see that there's a pretty blue and white design printed on her bodice. As she and the villagers launch into “Belle/Bonjour”, I felt like singing along. I enjoyed many of the subtle changes to the song – instead of singing to herd of sheep, as she does in the film, Belle tugs on the arms of one of the other villagers and excitedly babbles about the story she's reading. For the first time, I could see exactly why other villagers might find her odd; who wouldn't be a little freaked out by a girl who grabs you and, apropos of nothing, and starts talking about some fantasy story?
The sets were too garish and flimsy-looking; they did little to help build the fairy tale world. Belle's village looked like gingerbread houses made from cardboard. The twisting, vine-like staircases that formed the Beast's castle were cool-looking, but ill-proportioned for the stage. From my vantage point up in the balcony, every time someone climbed one they'd disappear from view.
There are little changes to the plot that I thought really helped bring the characters to life. The curse on the Castle is not just an inconvenience to the servants-turned-household-objects; it's now a threat. The longer they remain in the shape of feather dusters or candlesticks, the more their humanity slips away, until they will really be inanimate objects. In some cases, the transformation is complete; some servants have lost the ability to move, speak or see. That's a horrible fate, and it really gives Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and the rest of the castle gang an urgent need to break the spell. After Belle comes to the castle of the Beast, she refuses to join him for dinner. They fight, and the Beast storms out. However, instead of sulking in the West Wing he puts together a plate of food and brings it to her doorway – only to overhear Belle complaining about him, so he throws the plate away in anger. Later, Belle teaches the Beast to read through the tales of King Arthur, making his gift of a library a tool to bring them together.
I wish that I was as happy with some of the other changes, like the musical additions. There are several new songs, ranging from forgettable to awkward to completely out of place. Unmemorable is how I'd describe Gaston's proposal to Belle, now sung in “Me”, which sounds rather like “Gaston” but with less clever wordplay. It's also pretty clear why the Beast never sang in the original movie – when given the chance, “If I Can't Love Her” proves that he's just a sulky whiner. And then there's “A Change in Me”, Belle's big final solo. It doesn't sound anything like the rest of the musical. I guess this makes sense, given the song's history – according to Wikipedia, the song was added several years into the show to give Toni Braxton another chance to show off her pipes – but it sticks out like a sore thumb.
What also stuck out was how bad many of the individual performances were. The actors were really hamming it up – for the kids, one presumes – so that after very sentence Gaston struck a 'model' pose and Lumiere let loose a French chortle. Do it once or twice, and these exaggerations are funny. Do them constantly, and it becomes very annoying very quickly. The hardest character to watch by far, however, was the Beast. He was vocally all over the place. Sometimes he would speak gruffly, with a growl, showing the animal that lurked ever closer to the surface. At other times, he would speak in the normal voice he'd used as the Prince. He'd either go falsetto when mocking his servants (think of Homer Simpson's fruitier moments) or deliver his lines in a complete deadpan. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the vocal changes; they just gave the overall impression that the Beast was bipolar and rapidly zipping from one end of the spectrum to the other. It's like they were all acting like cartoon characters from Looney Tunes, which is simply unsustainable for three hours.
If I had to single out a particular moment for oddity, I think it would be the great “Be Our Guest” dance number. Belle, as Lumiere sings his signature number, gets up and starts dancing with the forks and spoons instead of merely watching as a passive observer. Fine. Good. As she can-cans with the napkins, Belle gets really into it – treating the entire audience to several long views of her snow-white bloomers. Am I the only one a little weirded out by a Disney princess proudly showing off her underwear?
I guess the magic just seemed spread a little thin throughout this musical. I'm not just talking about the special effects, which were laughable. In his big transformation scene, a screen is dropped and the Beast, lying flat on his back like a body at a wake, spins in the air like a corpse caught up in a tornado. It looked ridiculous. But no, what I mean is that the many elements never quite pulled together to make a great show. The songs were uneven, the characters more strange than entertaining, and the hero wasn't someone I ever wanted to root for.
There's no other way to say it: this was just a bad show. Why pay $80 a seat for this trainwreck when you can watch the movie, at home, and see a production more worthy of Broadway?