The tale as old as time returns to the West End. The 1991 animated film is doubtlessly one of the most beloved out of the Disney catalogue and saw a number of live-action films of varied quality developed over the years. Now, its musical adaptation takes over the Palladium in a grand spectacle directed and choreographed by Matt West. It’s big, it’s theatrical, it’s magical.
Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice and Alan Ashman plus a book by Linda Woolverton, it’s impressively faithful to the original movie (with its dash of Stockholm Syndrome kept in there for good measure).
A prince, transformed into a scary creature as punishment for his arrogance, terrifies the quaint little French town where Belle lives. A bookworm with dreams of a faraway life, she is adored by the outcasts and misunderstood by her fellow villagers. When the Beast imprisons her eccentric inventor father in his dungeon after he accidentally trespasses, Belle offers herself in exchange for his liberation.
Trapped in the castle, she finds comfort and acceptance in the Beast’s servants, turned into household objects by the same spell that struck the prince. Slowly, she falls for the Beast while her buff and toxic suitor Gaston leads the townspeople on a rescue mission. The curse is broken, the Beast and his staff return to their human form, and everyone lives happily ever after (except for Gaston and his red flags).
From Courtney Stapleton’s enormous voice as Belle to Gavin Lee’s Lumière, and from Sam Bailey’s cockney Mrs Potts down the somersaulting, pirouetting, split-jumping ensemble, the production is a five-star cum laude, but the material has a few too many blind spots to ignore.
The big-money project is a cinematic experience with a colossal wow factor in its visual aspects. Projections, shadow-play, a mechanically impressive set, and gorgeous dance numbers deliver a stunning show where delicate music-box moments sit alongside large musical ones that celebrate and stretch the immense possibility of theatre.
Stapleton’s Belle is a clever, independent young woman who knows what she wants from life until she’s met with love (we won’t go into whether it actually is love or not…). Her delivery is devastating. Her terror and emotional distress make “Home” a highlight in the solos, which generally tend to be weak.
The song, however, is definitely misplaced, coming in too abruptly when neither Belle nor the audience have had the chance to mourn the total loss of her freedom. Compared with the choral pieces, the solo ballads wane. Belle and the Beast’s are especially unmemorable and, while they give a first-hand look into their souls, they don’t stick at all.
Shaq Taylor hides a sweet, privileged prince with a snort laugh beneath the gruff and unpolished Beast. His chemistry with Belle seeps through his fake fur, crooked horns, and heavy leather jacket, lighting the flame of his redemption. Sadly, he has one of the most anaemic songs with “If I Can’t Love Her”. The Beast’s main number from the 2017 film has been regretfully omitted.
The title couple disappear completely when the side characters are on stage. Tom Senior’s Gaston is in love with his own turgid biceps and Louis Stockil puts something of Jim Carrey’s act in his panto-like approach to Le Fou. Gavin Lee, Nigel Richards (Cogsworth), Samantha Bingley (Madame), and Sam Bailey steal the show, with Lee becoming its true star.
His traditional delivery of Lumière is a captivating study of fluidity in physical comedy. He is a fascinating, hilarious presence and the four of them are endlessly entertaining and charming when assembled. They truly come into themselves in the non-musical moments, but shine when called into action.
“Be Our Guest” is, as expected, a spectacular extravaganza of flashy theatrical magic. It’s huge. Feathered can-can girls, tapping crockery-clad dancers with top hats and tails, a sumptuous set with bright lights and screens all around all make for a variety-style presentation that’s simply awe-inducing. We’ll even forgive the overuse of anachronistic images of the Tour Eiffel everywhere that are used to remind us that we’re in France (Lee’s fictitious French accent is enough).
Stanley A. Meyer’s sets are gorgeous, opulent. Large baroque pieces descend and move to create the castle interiors, expanded by Darrel Maloney’s beautiful projections that incorporate gothic elements into the mix, while the town is a lovely stage adaptation of the original one from the film. The costumes (Ann Hould-Ward) are period-dress-on-crack with hints of rococo and 1700s Alpine clothing. Over-saturated, vibrant colours dominate the scene and fun patterns as well as shorter skirts modernise their styles.
Running at two and a half hours, including as many dark points as the original film, it might not be the wisest choice for the little ones in the audience, but Disney fans will love it. It’s a dreamy, well-mounted production with a soaring, sumptuous score. It’s as big as musical theatre gets.
Beauty and the Beast runs at the London Palladium until 17 September. It then goes on to play is Bristol and Dublin.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson