'Guest' earns its keep Review: 'Beauty and the Beast's' singing kitchenware is as delightfully animated on stage as in the movie.

June 08, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

To paraphrase a song title, "be a guest" at the Kennedy Center's "Beauty and the Beast," and you'll definitely feel welcome.

One of the most inspired scenes in Disney's animated movie of "Beauty and the Beast" was "Be Our Guest" -- a production number performed by a cast of singing and dancing kitchenware.

The inspiration to bring household objects to life came from the film's executive producer and lyricist, Howard Ashman, a native Baltimorean who died in 1991, the year the movie was released.

When Disney decided to turn "Beauty and the Beast" into its first Broadway musical, one of the stumbling blocks must have been those pesky walking and talking clocks, candlesticks and teapots.

After all, it's one thing to pull this off with drawings. It's quite another with real live people. But this production pulls it off.

The key is one of the few changes made for the stage show, which in most other respects replicates the movie to a remarkable degree. (This isn't necessarily a compliment; more on that later.)

The change is credited to costume designer Ann Hould-Ward. In the movie, the transformation of the servants into objects was a fait accompli; it was part of the spell that doomed the handsome, but cold-hearted prince to be a hideous beast until he learned how to love -- and to make someone fall in love with him.

On stage, however, the servants are still in the process of turning into objects. Cogsworth, the clock, for example, discovers one day that he has a wind-up key sticking out of his back. This on-going process not only makes the servants' plight more pressing and sympathetic, it also makes it easier to accept human-sized spoons and forks.

And when those spoons, forks, knives, napkins, corkscrews, wire whisks, etc., etc., break out into "Be Our Guest" -- with Matt West's choreography retaining the Busby Berkeley style it had on screen -- it's a moment of sheer joy. (You'll never take your salt and pepper shakers for granted again.)

The enchanted objects also have a lovely song, "Human Again," that was cut from the movie. In addition, the score augments Ashman and composer Alan Menken's movie soundtrack with a half-dozen new songs with lyrics by Tim Rice -- the only other major change in the stage show.

Rice's lyrics blend in nicely, though they lack some of Ashman's wit. ("No one's gloomy or complaining/While the flatware's entertaining" is an example of pure Ashman brio.) And, it seems only fair that the Beast finally has some solos of his own, movingly sung by Frederick C. Inkley.

Inkley's Beast, however, as well as Kim Huber's Belle and especially Tony Lawson's Gaston, exemplify the way the stage show replicates the movie. Director Robert Jess Roth has mounted a production that demonstrates far more craftsmanship than art. It may not be Mickey Mouse, but it's not "Show Boat," either.

Although the sets (designed by Stan Meyer) and the special effects are as lavish as you'd hope for the touring twin of one of Broadway's most expensive productions, the overall feel is not one of theatrical innovation. Instead, it's a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional film on the three-dimensional stage.

That said, it must be acknowledged that "Beauty and Beast" was a delightful film. The first animated feature ever nominated for an Oscar, it was also dubbed the best musical of 1991 by the New York Times theater critic -- praise that may be partly responsible for this stage incarnation. And, the stage show is an excellent way to introduce children to live theater. (The 10-year-old who accompanied me was enthralled and correctly assessed Patrick Page's fine performance as Lumiere, the candlestick, as the funniest in the show.)

What the production isn't, is groundbreaking or original. It's what you'd expect for Disney's first foray onto Broadway (with performances that keep it from descending into theme-park kitsch).

And now that there are some new, hit, groundbreaking musicals on Broadway, maybe they'll teach Disney a thing or two for the next time around.

'Beauty and the Beast'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 6: 30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 29

Tickets: $25-$65

Call: (800) 444-1324

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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