Theater purists scoff at the notion, but one significant reason for the resurgence of the Broadway musical in recent years has nothing whatsoever to do with the Great White Way itself, but rather, with the resurgence of superb show music in full-length Disney cartoons.
Everything about Alan Menken’s score and songs for “Beauty & the Beast” is theatrical in conception, so much so, in fact, that had it appeared on Broadway without having first been a cartoon, it could have done quite well on its own. The fact that is was a cartoon first, however, meant that there isn’t a child in America who grew up with these songs who doesn’t know them inside and out, an unlikely phenomenon if “Beauty and the Beast” had begun life on Broadway.
Luckily, the songs are quite good, and children being exposed to them in any way, shape or form will only increase their appetite for good show music in the long run. Thus, taking children familiar to the live version of “Beauty and the Beast” can be viewed as an investment in their theater-going future.
No, this is not as elaborate a production as the touring version that came through twelve years ago, but in many ways, what has been scaled back—the behemoth town set, for instance—serves to heighten the basic love story. All of the familiar songs and characters from the film are here, and then some. There are bigger, three-dimensional numbers such as an elaborate “Be Our Guest” Act I climax that is actually more effective than the flat animated version.
With more songs and scenes added, the popular fairy tale is fleshed out a bit more, and there are even new songs which fit in remarkably well. When Justin Glaser as the Beast, for instance, longingly sings of his unrequited love for Belle, played by Liz Shivener, a moment which might not have worked in the cartoon is quite effective on stage. The kids may go for candy at such a moment, but parents will love it.
And that is why “Beauty and the Beast” as a live musical works so well: it can be appreciated on a variety of different levels. The kids will have plenty of spectacle and special effects, the adults get plenty of romance and pathos. There are even some pretty intense moments here for small children—the first appearance of the Beast sent a handful of toddlers bolting into Moms’ arms—but of course, everything works out well in the end. This is Disney, after all, not Jean Cocteau. (Dennis Polkow)
“Beauty and the Beast” plays through April 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, (800)775-2000. $18-$85.