I first saw Beauty and the Beast onstage at the Belk 12 summers ago and remember it with an intense feeling of pleasure. And as I watched the current national tour open there Tuesday night, I realized that either my memory is failing, or this is a very different show.
Did confetti cannons douse the audience with streamers during Be Our Guest last time around? Did the actors pause weightily between gags, looking out at the audience to make sure we got the laughs? Did Belle belt her big second-act number downstage center, spreading her arms at the end as if summoning Elphaba to help her defy gravity?
I dont think so. What was once a darker stage version of the immaculate animated movie has become a laff riot, as the show business magazine Variety might say. What sent ripples of emotion through adults now sparks giggles from children, especially Disney princesses in tiaras and gowns who werent even gleams in their parents eyes back in 2000.
The show still has moments of tenderness: The bit where Belle (Emily Behny) reads the tale of King Arthurs knights to the illiterate Beast (Dane Agostinis) has warmth and humor: They bond over written words, rather than heroic deeds, and that scene comes off perfectly. (I cant recall another musical that so honors a love of books.)
Most of the time, wackiness prevails. Monsieur DArque, once a menacing master of lunacy, is now a clowning fraud. Belles rejected braggart of a suitor transitioned quickly from goofball to ghoul in 2000; here Gaston (rich-voiced baritone Matt Farcher) stays more of a bumpkin than a brute.
Agostinis has dignity and comic timing, but his defanged Beast isnt really allowed to make us shudder. And Behnys perky Belle may be teased by the rest of the village, but she never seems like an angsty outsider who cant wait to leave. Its as if were not meant to fear for these people or empathize with their suffering; we know theyll be fine, so why worry?
Within that framework, the show works quite well. Michael Hallers lecherous Lumiere can turn any line into a double entendre, delivered with a weighty wink. (He doesnt sing Be Our Guest, but Be Our Guest.)
Madame de la Grande Bouche (Jen Bechter) shrieks like the love child of Jo Anne Worley and an extraterrestrial. Lefou (Jimmy Larkin), Gastons masochistic sidekick, is not just foolish but acrobatically loony. The gravity in this show comes from the quiet Cogsworth (James May) and Mrs. Potts (Julia Louise Hosack), whose calm warmth remains as comforting as ever.
The small orchestra, augmented by programmed keyboards, played with precision and verve under Carolyn Violi, who never swamped the singers. Even unnamed gargoyles (as I assume they were) who moved set pieces, their limbs rigid and movements precise, added atmosphere. You cant have magic, even the broadly silly kind, without paying that kind of attention to detail.