Let’s start off with a confession: I am a glasses-wearing, book-loving woman of a certain age who adored Belle when Beauty and the Beast hit cinemas in 1991. Today, little girls wear Elsa gowns, I wore that iconic yellow dress. (Though if we’re being honest, the blue pinafore is much more my style.)
So, it’s a little surprising that last night at the London Palladium was my first time seeing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast onstage. And I felt just like that 5-year-old girl, tearing up because I was so moved by the story of love, family, and the lengths one woman will go to protect those she loves.
However, seeing Beauty and the Beast in 2022 is a much different experience than watching the classic in the early ‘90s. Belle is famously a trailblazer among Disney princesses; she makes her own calls and charts her journey apart from love and romance. With recent news and the devastating events leading to women losing more and more of their choices, watching Belle give up hers and then consistently correct and adjust the behaviour of the men around her hits differently.
But Belle’s agency and fortitude continues to make her a role model for people of all ages, and Courtney Stapleton’s performance highlights the character’s individuality and strength. There have been some updates to the character – including the addition of a pair of glasses and no more apron – as well as streamlining of the show, with a few songs cut.
Director and choreographer Matt West keeps things moving along, even if in larger ensemble numbers the stage can feel a little sparse and Darrel Maloney’s projections fill the space in magical ways, with a trimmed-down set by Stanley A. Meyer. However what the production lacks in lavish spectacle, it makes up for in heart.
The cast is all winning with the standout Gavin Lee leading the pack as the flamboyant Lumière who earns his show-stopping applause for “Be Our Guest.” Samantha Bingley is a standout in a small role as the boisterous Madame, and X Factor winner Sam Bailey does a spot on (pun intended) Angela Lansbury homage as Mrs. Potts.
Tom Senior is Disney villain perfection as Gaston; and he looks like the cartoon was based on his actual likeness. Shaq Taylor does what he can with a difficult role in the Beast, and his emotional ballad “If I Can’t Love Her” is stirring.
Ultimately Beauty and the Beast hits all the marks you want from a heartwarming Disney show. You know what you’re signing up for, and the current updates and tweaks make Belle’s trailblazing story of sacrifice all the more relevant. Women shouldn’t have to give up their autonomy to inspire change, but it’s validating to remember that one woman can have immense power in changing a community and the world.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is running at the London Palladium. Book Disney’s Beauty and the Beast tickets on London Theatre.