Knowing that the whole economic development of New York City depends on how the critics respond to Disney, I am a little nervous about reviewing "Beauty and the Beast."
Mind you, I have always championed Disney's classic films, and I would be perfectly happy if Disney, which is renovating a theater on W. 42d St., could transform the whole block into Main Street, U.S.A.
That said, I hope I will not seem lacking in civic-mindedness if my enthusiasm for "Beauty and the Beast" is limited.
Although the musical is full of razzmatazz and old-fashioned showmanship, it lacks heart. The great miracle of "Snow White" was that audiences were moved, quite profoundly, by cartoons. Here, using humans, the effect is rather mechanical.
The musical is, of course, a stage version of the animated film. It is an hour longer and offers six new songs. But it doesn't tell the story as econonmically or compellingly. Lyrics that sounded clever coming out of the mouth of an animated creature seem fairly mundane coming from an actual human being.
The high point of the film is "Be Our Guest," the Busby Berkeley number in which teapots and other tableware dance out an invitation to Belle to dine with them. Here, the number goes on at great length, leading from one glitzy set to another (recalling the Ziegfeld scenery from the Palace's last tenant, "The Will Rogers Follies"). Although it builds momentum and excitement (I particularly liked a dancing doormat), it doesn't have the magic of the film.
There are some extraordinary effects throughout the evening, particularly at the end, when the Beast, transformed by love, whirls through space and emerges a handsome prince. There are some jolly dances (one, in which merrymakers clink their mugs rhythmically, also reminiscent of the Palace's last tenant). But all this is short on genuine emotion.
Seldom does an actor get a real chance to do anything human (except dodge the constantly moving sets). The most enjoyable performance is Burke Moses as Belle's braggart suitor. As the Beast, Terrence Mann spends most of the evening behind a mask that, alas, cannot be animated, which makes him less appealing than he should be. Belle herself, Susan Egan, is a cool customer, melting only at the end.
Tom Bosley's talent is woefully underutilized as her father. There are lively, droll performances by Heath Lamberts, Gary Beach and Beth Fowler as the Beast's retainers.
Visually, the show makes the British musicals, whose orientation toward sets and effects it apes, seem quite refined. This Beast's castle, for example, is far less imaginative than Norma Desmond's lair in "Sunset Boulevard."
One would wish Disney's first Broadway foray would have regarded the theater as a spur to the imagination rather than a pretext for mindless spectacle. But the Disney people have correctly discerned that Broadway caters increasingly to tourists and children, and they have put together an enjoyable package for this market.
The Disney industry is not in the surprise business. Its products while, naturally enough, varying in quality, are never anything less, or anything more, than predictable.
"Astonish me!" the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev used to say to Jean Cocteau. He would never have said that to the captains of Disneyland. More likely: "Give me a back rub!"
I think of Cocteau because of his film version of "Beauty and the Beast," which came long before the vastly successful Disney cartoon feature. It is, of course, that feature which has been transformed into a spectacular stage extravaganza. Now it is smoothly berthed at the Palace Theater, presumably for history's foreseeable future.
The exultantly charming movie - like the subsequent "Aladdin" - marked a turn in cartoon artistic family values, and had a style and grace, although a lot of nonsense (call it poppy-Cocteau perhaps) was talked about the sterling Broadway quality of its score.
Actually the music by Alan Menken was, and is, mediocre by even Broadway's nowadays debased standards, and although the late Howard Ashman's lyrics had much more spirit, they could still not prevent the score from being the cartoon's one weakish link.
Menken's additional music added for Broadway is pallidly indistinguishable from his old, and although Tim Rice (of earlier Andrew Lloyd Webber fame) fills in most capably for Ashman, Gershwin (George and Ira) this isn't. It's not, for that matter, Jerry Herman.
The Disney potentates needn't worry, or even notice. The show is being marketed on other qualities, more visual than aural, more theme-park than theater, relying as heavily on special effects as dramatic effectiveness.
However - to the show's vast credit - the staging by Robert Jess Roth, the brashly Gothic scenery by Stan Meyer, and even more the subtly judged costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, and the energetic choreography from Matt West, work extremely well on their own terms.
It seems a sincere and intelligent attempt to translate cartoon images into Broadway patterns without - if you'll pardon the expression - simply Mickeymousing the movie. It still maintains the outline and tone of that original, which, after all, the public is paying for, without slavishly imitating it.
The trouble is - it was better as a cartoon. But luckily it was a very good cartoon.
The story - like "The Sleeping Beauty," it is a myth of sexual awakening, in case the kids don't notice - is as old as time, and Linda Woolverton's book updates it cutely enough, adding a cheerful subplot of a conceited ass of a body-beautiful villain, Gaston, who demands the heroine Belle's hand.
Naturally what audiences will be most interested in - and I dare say what cost much of that astronomic and nicely publicized production budget - is the manner in which the stage has managed to encompass the cartoon's special effects. And the answer is very neatly indeed.
The final transformation of the Beast into a Prince is worthy of illusionist David Copperfield, but throughout, the show gives us plenty to gawp at. You can see where the money went - which is always a kind of pleasure.
The performances - like everything else in the show - are as precision efficient and as well-gauged as the menu in a top-of-the-line fast-food chain.
Susan Egan's attitudinized Belle, the Beauty (unlike the cartoon she didn't seem a Snow White lookalike), Terrence Mann's woebegone Beast (not the noble bison-figure of the movie), and Burke Moses' exuberant Gaston were all fine, and so was everyone else.
"Beauty and the Beast" is not a show for people vitally interested in the future of Broadway other than as real estate. It is not - in this respect, at least, God bless it! - a show for critics, be they beauties or beasties.
It is a show for people who know what they like and like what they know. And for that purpose, it is probably better than it actually needed to be.
As Broadway musicals go, "Beauty and the Beast" belongs right up there with the Empire State Building, F. A. O. Schwarz and the Circle Line boat tours. It is hardly a triumph of art, but it'll probably be a whale of a tourist attraction. It is Las Vegas without the sex, Mardi Gras without the booze and Madame Tussaud's without the waxy stares. You don't watch it, you gape at it, knowing that nothing in Dubuque comes close.
At an official cost of nearly $12 million -- unofficial estimates run considerably higher -- the Walt Disney Company has recreated on the stage of the Palace Theater its 1991 blockbuster animated feature, right down to the ravenous wolves, the dancing spoons and the enchanted rose that sheds its petals as true love's hopes run low. Family audiences tired of prancing felines are apt to find this cause for celebration. Others may look upon the eye-boggling spectacle as further proof of the age-old theory that if you throw enough money at the American public, the American public will throw it right back.
The scenery by Stan Meyer -- mostly in that ornate, slightly scary German Gothic style that passes for picturesque at Disney -- is almost always on the move. No apparition, disappearance, thunderbolt, rainstorm or swirling fog bank is beyond the capabilities of the show's special-effects engineers. Any one of Ann Hould-Ward's costumes would be the envy of a Beaux-Arts ball. And if you thought the chandelier crashing to the stage in "The Phantom of the Opera" was something, wait until the Beast (Terrence Mann), presumably dead, rises up from the castle floor, floats 10 feet or so into space, then starts to spin like a human propeller. Before the spinning is done and you've caught your breath, he has somehow shed all things beastly and become a dashing prince again. (Take that, Siegfried and Roy.)
The astonishments rarely cease. Yet strange as it may sound, that's the very drawback of "Beauty and the Beast." Nothing has been left to the imagination. Everything has been painstakingly and copiously illustrated. There is no room for dreaming, no quiet tucked-away moment that might encourage a poetic thought. For an evening that puts forth so much, "Beauty and the Beast" has amazingly little resonance. What you see is precisely what you get. In the end, the musical says far less about the redemptive power of love than it does about the boundless ingenuity of what is called Team Disney.
The movie's strength -- at least from Broadway's perspective -- is the Academy Award-winning score by Alan Menken and his partner, Howard Ashman, who died early in 1991, before work began on the stage version. Such songs as "Belle," "Be Our Guest" and "Gaston" are happily reminiscent of Lerner and Loewe, and the title number speaks stirringly of love, as few Broadway ballads do these days. To them, Mr. Menken, working with the lyricist Tim Rice, has added seven new numbers, partly to bring out the sensitive side of the Beast, partly to underscore Belle's fortitude. However, the production, directed by Robert Jess Roth, is reluctant to let a song be a song in its own way and time. Two kinds of delivery are recognized: the hard sell and the harder sell.
"Be Our Guest," the first-act show-stopper, knows no shame in that regard. Its lavishness is close to delirium, its giddiness beyond camp. If you are one of the six people in America who don't know the plot, a wicked witch has transformed the handsome prince into a cross between Quasimodo and a buffalo, and the staff of the castle is slowly turning into sundry household objects: teacup, feather duster and the like. When it looks as if Belle, the pensive town beauty, might break the curse by falling in love with the Beast, the housewares get pretty excited. Hence, the production number.
Before long, the spatula is cavorting with the fork, the rug is doing cartwheels and the dinner plates are parading down a grand staircase like arrogant showgirls angling for a sugar daddy. The choreographer, Matt West, is responsible for this interlude, although Busby Berkeley on magic mushrooms might have staged it. For its duration, at least, the extravaganza elevates "Beauty and the Beast" to a realm of hallucinogenic lunacy that surely goes against every sane and sober principle Disney stands for.
The actors resemble their cartoon counterparts as much as real actors could reasonably be expected to. In the case of Susan Egan, who plays Belle, a quintessential Disney heroine, being pretty, unspoiled and plucky (but never rude) is mostly what's required. Tom Bosley, as her eccentric inventor father, limits himself largely to a dazed and bumbling manner. The others, however, are variously done up as steaming teapot (Beth Fowler, giving the evening's warmest performance), grandfather clock (the amusingly Napoleonic Heath Lamberts), overstuffed armoire (the imperious Eleanor Glockner) and gold candelabrum (the rather-too-excitable Gary Beach). In place of hands, Mr. Beach has melted candles that function, periodically, as flamethrowers. This will appease all those little boys in the audience who would just as soon Belle got lost in the woods.
Much of the movie's charm stems from the way objects are made to look and behave like people. Reversing the anthropomorphic process, the musical prides itself on how cleverly people can be made into objects. Even Gaston (Burke Moses), the town Adonis, gives the impression that he is inflated with helium and destined for a place of honor in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He has piano keys for teeth, his pompadour rises off his forehead like a tidal wave and he preens like Arnold. Whenever he socks his dopey sidekick, Lefou (Kenny Raskin), the sound technicians provide the sort of "pows" and "thwunks" that you normally hear when Popeye flattens Bluto. Lefou, naturally, goes sprawling halfway across the stage.
While the tale of Beauty and the Beast is not fraught with psychological complexities, Linda Woolverton's book expands her screenplay without noticeably deepening it. Only the primary emotions and the most elemental reactions stand a chance of holding their own against the bustle and blazing pyrotechnics, anyway. The miracle of Mr. Mann's performance is not its epic monstrousness or the fury of his amplified roars. It's miraculous because somehow, despite the masses of matted fur, the padding and the protruding incisors, he actually manages to convey the delicacy of awakening love. (His eyes have a lot to do with it. Ringed with concentric circles of black, they can be ineffably sad.) Elsewhere, simple-mindedness prevails, cheerfully and unapologetically.
"Beauty and the Beast" is Disney's first official Broadway musical, with more, apparently, to come. Nobody should be surprised that it brings to mind a theme-park entertainment raised to the power of 10. Although not machine-made, it is clearly the product of a company that prizes its winning formulas. Inspiration has less to do with it than tireless industry.
The result is a sightseer's delight, which isn't the same thing as a theatergoer's dream.
Disney arrives on Broadway with a bang. And a boom, and a roar, plenty of fireworks and a fistful of lovely songs. It will almost certainly be met with varying levels of derision by Broadway traditionalists, many critics among them, and there's plenty in the $ 12 million production to fuel the ire. The complaints, however, will be meaningless where it counts, which is at the Palace Theater box office and at the "Beauty and the Beast" bazaar that used to be the Palace lobby. Disney's first Broadway show will be packing them in -- and thumbing its nose at the naysayers -- for a very long time.
The good news is that in the transmutation from 80-minute animated feature to 150-minute Broadway extravaganza, "Beauty and the Beast" boasts several real pluses. Susan Egan is a charming Belle, while Terrence Mann, who has been furry on Broadway (in "Cats") and fearsome on Broadway (in "Les Miserables") is both as the growly but soulful Beast.
Several of the other performances are equally winning, but the star born of this production is Burke Moses, who plays the preening comic villain Gaston with communicable relish. When everything else on the stage seems forced and effortful, Moses -- lips smirking, muscles bulging, eyebrows arching -- makes it look simple. He's easily the musical's most animated feature.
And of course the live "Beauty and the Beast" comes with the exceptional Alan Menken/Howard Ashman score that helped make a megahit of the film. To that score have been added seven new songs. Six are by Menken and Tim Rice; sometimes clever, they rarely seem necessary, which is what the songs in a musical must be.
The seventh, "Human Again," was a Menken and Ashman song dropped from the film, and not surprisingly, it's the best addition, as the Beast's servants express their longing for the spell to be broken so that they might regain their human forms.
But a human form is exactly what has eluded the Disney folks who assembled this show, which in the end feels bloated, padded, gimmick-ridden, tacky and, despite the millions, utterly devoid of imagination. The pyrotechnics have nothing on "Tommy" or "The Phantom of the Opera," and the packaging is never better than obvious and heavy-handed. For all the huffing and puffing of scenery , "Beauty" is relentlessly two-dimensional.
Linda Woolverton's book spends more time developing the Beast, making him a fuller character than he was in the movie. The change is summed up inRice's best lyric, "If I Can't Love Her," in which the unenchanted Prince realizes that if he can't love Belle, he's got a real problem.
Putting aside the fact that Belle here is much more of a snobby little social climber than she appeared in the movie, all this moody business for the Beast pretty well defangs him. I mean, it's not called "Beauty and the Sensitive Guy (with the Tail)." Menken and Rice have also given a number, "No Matter What," to Belle's father, Maurice (the great Tom Bosley, not great here), that's a perfect example of the padding: "They are the common herd," he sings to Belle, "take my word." Ugh.
The show is jampacked with special effects: Lights flash, explosions are constantly going off, computerized lights swirl, sending their splayed beams around the stage. The most talked-about effect comes in the final scene, in which the dead Beast's transformation now plays like a Las Vegas version of the Passion Play at Oberammergau: He levitates! He spins around in midair! He returns to Earth young and scrumptious!
Among the more off-putting effects, Chip (Brian Press) -- the son of Mrs. Potts (Beth Fowler, a pro but no match for the film's Angela Lansbury) -- appears as a face in a cup, usually on a cart; the illusion is that of a decapitated head nattering away, and it's downright creepy. So are the appendages of the other characters -- Mrs. Potts' spout, the torches of Lumiere (Gary Beach, utterly graceless in a role that cries out for finesse), which often look like stumps.
The sets themselves, by Stan Meyer, look like something designed to be seen by people in moving seats, maybe at Disneyland. Broadway audiences will stare in horror at the Day-Glo drop that passes for the countryside that Belle wanders through in the endless opening. The scale of the castle interior is puny, and it will look even punier when John Napier's eye-popping rendering of Norma Desmond's digs arrives with "Sunset Boulevard" in the fall.
For "Beauty's" big Busby Berkeley number, "Be Our Guest," the stage is enclosed in a series of concentric circles (think Radio City Music Hall, but not too hard), all strung with marquee lights flashing, as the company, costumed as flatware and china, flings itself about.
Matt West's deadly choreography, lame kick-line stuff, barely deserves to be called dancing, and even with a company of more than 30, the number looks anemic and underpopulated.
But Robert Jess Roth's incompetent staging is equally crude, and there's more of it. Whole legions of actors point and stare, pose and look generally like they're following dotted lines on the stage. They're also horribly overmiked, one reason, perhaps, why the actors always seem to be pointing to themselves when it's their turn to talk.
My chief quarrel with Egan is that her voice is more pop star than musical theater (a common problem on Broadway these days), and with all the electronic "help," the singing seems more and more from another idiom.
One would have expected a pristine show from Disney. There's no reason for the play to be nearly double the length of the film, and no excuse for a 90 -minute first act for a show whose seats will be filled with lots of kids.
The irony, of course, is that for years, people have complained that the imported musicals have turned Broadway into a theme park. Now Disney's come along and proven the point. It's a small world, after all.