Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beauty and the Beast: A Review

Tonight’s showing of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was a mix of things, to be sure. It is a huge task to adapt an established musical movie—having the power of computer animation and an endless supply of dancers who can execute inhuman acrobatics in perfect unison—to the stage. It is an equal challenge to adapt such a grand stage performance for a traveling tour. As a result, there were many things about the show that were quite commendable; there were also many things with room for improvement.

One of the most difficult things to adjust about a show for such a large venue as that of the Broadway theatres in New York is reducing the symphonic orchestra to a troupe of traveling minstrels. I was actually impressed with the choices of instruments to keep: keyboard, violin, three reeds, trumpet, french horn, bass, cello, and percussion. The fact that the orchestration relied so heavily on live instruments was pleasing, as nothing offends my ear more than an entirely synthesized soundtrack. I thought I was in for a long evening with the overture, which tried—in vain—to replicate the sound of the full orchestra with several pre-recorded tracks on the synthesizer. Much of the rest of the show, however, was quite satisfactory: excellent balance, few intonation issues (a feat on its own with three players who must swiftly change instruments), and a wonderful variety of styles. I only took issue with certain orchestration choices, mainly in strange unisons (are two oboes really needed on this one note?) and unfortunate synthesized choices (dramatic timpani rolls really sound much better on timpani). All in all, however, the pit did well what it could without the breadth of a symphonic orchestra.

The singers, too, were of a particularly high quality. Belle had a sweet voice with the ability to belt, which only became offensive when it overpowered her microphone and became distorted. The Beast had a strange voice for the part; I had expected a deep, resonant baritone or bass and instead received a tenor bottoming out. On his particularly dramatic number “If I Can’t Love Her,” his voice became strained in an attempt to invoke passion and caused me instead to recoil in my chair. Gaston, however, probably takes the prize for the best voice in the show—and, to his credit, that was expected with his incredible repertoire of opera listed in his biography. Mrs. Potts, too, was faced with the task of singing the most recognizable song of the show, “Beauty and the Beast,” with a microphone that continued to short out, and she still managed, with no amplification, to carry over the orchestra and still be understandable, even from the back of the balcony. The chorus left something to be desired with regards to balance, and sometimes a particularly forced voice stuck out over the ensemble, and they failed frequently to sing articulate lines, but they were quite good at dancing, and I suppose that is their true purpose.

The sets were clearly a product of their time: many flashing lights, bright colors, and fiber-optic cables created the dreamiest set for any starstruck 11-year-old princess. There was an incredibly versatile village set, which opened up the show well during the “Belle” number. The use of the drifting curtains was quite an efficient way to effect the notion of a scene change, which can be one of the biggest headaches of any screen-to-stage production. The only truly frustrating set I experienced was that of the library; when every set had been rather true-to-life, the library was simply a curtain of floating books, which ended up looking more like the gate to a funhouse than to Belle’s sanctuary. There were many attempts at effects, however, that I feel could be done better, especially in the form of transformations; the enchantress’s and Prince’s transformations were achieved mostly by extended blackouts for a quick costume change, which grew quite frustrating when we want to see action on stage.

The acting was well done in my opinion; it was over-the-top and cutesy, but quite aware of the more serious moments. I grew irritated somewhat with the emasculation of the Beast; it is quite possible to show a sensitive side without turning into a pre-teen girl who has seen a mouse. Belle and Gaston, however, seemed to come straight out of the movie, which was satisfying on one hand in that we knew what to expect, and frustrating on the other hand that we were denied any other dimensions of their characters. The furniture characters had a wonderful chemistry that really made them appear to be the staff of the house, and the only complaint I have about that group is that Babette seemed to only recognize one aspect of the French accent, being that instead of “th,” she was to say “z.” I would have been much more pleased if she had never started the accent at all than simply hinting at it.

Dance numbers in this show left something to be desired. I realize that it is difficult to create the illusion of several hundred dancers onstage when there are truly only eight to ten, but I could not be drawn in to the ensemble numbers when so few people were moving so little. “Be Our Guest” went from a dramatic showstopper in the movie to a dinky little song-and-dance number, and I simply was not swept away, even with the pyrotechnics at the end. The “Gaston” number was particularly dull, and the clanging beer steins simply got irritating; the rhythm never grew complicated, and they exhausted their bag of tricks within just a few measures, but the dance dragged on for ages.

All in all, this show was not unpleasant, but it was not awe-inspiring either. Perhaps, as I said, this was lost in translation, as I received probably the most diluted production one could. If it had been half the price, I would have been pleased. As it stands, I give the show a 6/10; it was cute, but not memorable.