After New York Times critic Frank Rich called the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast that year's "best musical ... in any format," Michael Eisner (then at the peak of his power as Disney CEO) wasted little time turning this "tale as old as time" into the Mouse's first Broadway blockbuster. Over the last two decades, the story has been staged almost nonstop in theme parks, touring houses, and middle school cafetoriums around the world. Sadly, the bloom is off this Broadway rose, judging by the limp non-Equity production currently wilting on the Bob Carr stage.
To start with a positive note, Hilary Maiberger hits every one perfectly as Belle, whether singing Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's classic soundtrack or one of the forgettable filler songs written for the stage with Tim Rice. She's as plucky as role originator Susan Egan, and works hard to portray the bookworm heroine as a reasonably recognizable human being. Unfortunately, her beastly counterpart, Darick Pead, comes across as less of a noble savage than a campy cowardly lion; his flamboyant comic take is temporarily crowd-pleasing, but robs the Beast of his romantic character arc.
The trio of animate appliances -- Lumiere (Hassan Nazari-Robati), Cogsworth (James May), and Mrs. Potts (Erin Edelle) -- fare much better in the screen-to-stage transition. Their bulked-up backstory is one of the only script additions that doesn't feel like pure padding, though the robotic head representing Chip is scarier than anything at Halloween Horror Nights. Villainous Gaston (understudy Chris Brand) is the spitting image of a two-dimensional buffoon, a psycho-Elvis Lennie to sidekick Lefou's (Jimmy Larkin) slapstick Squiggy. And the balance of the supporting company is energetically competent, though Maurice (William A. Martin) was more like a creepy uncle than a loving father.
Disappointingly, the overall production values fell well short of what Orlando expects from the Disney name. The modular minimalist set pieces lack a monumental sense of scale. Props and costumes may read from the balcony, but in the orchestra they appear tacky, in a garishly inconsistent color palette unrepresentative of the film's beautiful art direction. Special effects, lauded in the original production, are now limited to fog, confetti cannons, and a lame finale transformation that barely qualifies as an illusion.
Most fatally, director Rob Roth's pacing is dreadfully slow, especially in the extended first act, with school play-style pauses between some line deliveries. It's hard to say this is a family-focused show when the intermission doesn't even end until 10pm. Beauty boasted a near-capacity crowd on opening night, and while the audience response wasn't as orgiastic as I've seen before, the girl behind me who had seen the show seven times seemed satisfied. But for my money, I'd suggest staying home with the Blu-ray instead.
[edited to correct performer's name]
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