Opening night of Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast" drew a lively family crowd full of little girls in tiaras and Belle gowns and little boys looking more princely than Beast-y.
It was a long show, and late for children — more than 2 1/2 hours, letting out past 10 p.m. — but almost all sat enthralled to the end. They must have thought they had slipped into midnight dreaming with eyes still open, because the show was pure fantasy, a story woven in an extravaganza of theatrical illusion.
"Beauty and the Beast" is more than just a good story. It remains one of Disney’s greatest successes: After its release in 1991, it quickly became the most popular animated film in history and was the first such movie to earn an Academy Award nomination for best picture.
In 1993 it was translated into musical theater and became Broadway’s sixth-longest-running show before closing in 2007.
Not bad for a fairy tale.
Technically, "Beauty and the Beast" is musical theater, but over the past 20 years, Disney has created a new type of Broadway adaptation with shows based on animated films such as "The Lion King." Rather than dramatizations of life (the traditional realm of theater), these works are the reverse: live animation.
To that end, every character is played larger than life: Gaston, that self-centered cad of a villain, seems to be all icons of egotism rolled into one, a macho-Elvis-bodybuilder-fashion-model-of-a-jerk. Belle is a sweet-petite-kind-and-generous-heroine-without-a-fault, while the Beast has a tender heart. These aren’t people, they’re stereotypes, which might not make great drama but makes a great fairy tale.
The roles are already so outrageous that overacting fits right in, and half the fun is enjoying the slapstick.
DISNEY’S "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST"
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 3
Cost: $37-$67. Half price for kids 4-12 for today’s matinee
Info: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
As with Disney’s other adaptations, "Beauty and the Beast" delivers sumptuous visuals: lighting effects, puppets, scrims, illusions, even the proverbial smoke and mirrors. It is a feast for the eyes, both young and old, and people of all ages are sure to have a wonderful time.
The design conveys "fairy tale" on every level, from vibrant colors and fake-y quaint structures to the curlicue patterns of old books. Belle’s village looks like a page from a children’s book come to life, with a background landscape drawn in crayon, and the Beast’s castle resembles a huge cage of wrought iron, the look softened by ranks of lit candles and curtains torn by claws.
In some ways, Disney’s design overshadows the actors, who do not interpret their roles so much as fill them, making singing their most distinct contribution.
As Gaston, Nathanial Hackmann — tall, muscular, handsome — postured and preened all over the stage, but it was his virile baritone that had the village girls swooning. As in the story, he was matched vocally and physically by Justin Glaser’s Beast, whose every move oozed brooding power. The similarities between Hackmann and Glaser (as well as between Gaston and the Beast) made their differences in character even more poignant.
Liz Shivener was a lovely Belle ("Beauty" in French) — charming, courageous, and with a sweet, clear voice — and Sabina Petra (Mrs. Potts) delivered a moving "Tale as Old as Time," almost everyone’s favorite song, and the show’s best pacing.
Among the secondary characters, Michael Fatica’s Lefou ("The Fool" in French) was an absolute delight. Fatica danced, acted and sang an impressively athletic sidekick, re-creating actions you might think are possible only in animation, like skidding across the stage on his okole.
The beer stein ensemble had everyone tapping along, and the scenes of trying to teach the Beast manners had adults laughing and the children squirming in delight.
The orchestra was a touring pit orchestra of 11 musicians that stayed with the singers like Velcro but were surprisingly rough-edged at crucial points, especially in the prelude to the second act and in the Beast’s big number at the end of Act 1, "If I Can’t Love Her," which was so rushed it lost some of its emotional power.
As the evening wound toward its climax, the show stopped being a show, and the audience made that magical theatrical transition into another world where girls find true love, beasts turn into princes and everyone goes home happy.
Ruth O. Bingham received her doctorate in musicology from Cornell University and has been reviewing the musical arts for more than 20 years.