`Beauty,' but without sign of beast

In Disney sort of way, rough edges of conflict are smoothed away

Theater Review

April 30, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

We are so eager to protect our children from sadness and fear that we sometimes deprive them of the very things that might give them comfort. How many of us remember our own childhoods as filled with nothing but sunny glades and babbling brooks? But for some reason, we persist in believing we can create that world for our daughters and sons.

We act as though chaos and terror and rage are invaders from the outside. Sometimes they are, but just as often, those forces are generated within even the youngest of us.

That's my problem with sanitized versions of classic fairy tales, and that's why I've never been crazy about the Disneyfication of Beauty and the Beast. The production running through Sunday at the Mechanic Theatre has fine singing and acting and exemplary production values. There's nothing that will cause school-age children even a moment's anxiety - but there's also nothing that will articulate their secret longings and struggles.

In a way, that's an odd complaint to make of a show as faithful as this one is to the original, a 1756 French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont. In that version, the heroine really is a bookish young miss, though she's not mocked for it, and her name really is Belle. And the Beast really does live in an enchanted palace, although the text mentions invisible servants, not dancing silverware. There's even a rose in LePrince de Beaumont's version, although it's not magical.

There's some debate as to whether the Beast always behaves nobly despite his monstrous appearance (LePrince de Beaumont) or whether he tames his savage nature to win Belle's love (Disney). An argument can be made for either interpretation; what's crucial is that there be something about the Beast that is truly hideous, or at the very least, disturbing.

The Tony Award-winning costumes by Ann Hould-Ward generally are superb, especially the transformations of one servant into a pair of silver candlesticks, and a diva into an overstuffed armoire. But Hould-Ward missed the mark with the Beast; he seems to have wandered in from the set of The Wizard of Oz. This Beast looks like the Cowardly Lion with a pair of horns, and actor Grant Norman plays him with a bit of the Lion's childishness. At his worst, the Beast acts like a spoiled brat, not the stuff of nightmares.

Norman and Danyelle Bossardet (Beauty) have a powdered sugar kind of courtship - sweet, but so light it could fly away at a puff of breath. For a show in which there is so much emphasis on food, there's not even a smidgen of sensuality between the lovers. The young audience never perceives that the Beast is battling with dark, inexplicable urges - which would make the eventual triumph of his better nature all the more touching.

It's telling that the two scenes with the most genuine abandon take place in a tavern and the castle's dining room. These are the big dance numbers, and they are a delight.

In "Gaston," when the village bully's exploits are celebrated by his cronies, choreographer Matt West has lots of fun exploring the percussive potential of pewter tankards. And "Be Our Guest," in which Belle is entertained by an enchanted dinner service, is unabashed, over-the-top, silly fun. Is there a current or former child alive who is immune to the charms of a dancing fork and spoon?

For my money, the score is syrupy and the lyrics are bland, each line landing with a thump on an obvious rhyme. However, as Beauty, Bossardet has a rich, buttery voice. Mark Dalio has a strong baritone and a nice comic touch as Gaston, portrayed here as Elvis Presley on steroids. It's a pity that Anne Kanengeiser (Mrs. Potts) doesn't get to sing more, as she possesses great purity of tone. And Charles E. Gerber has a natural, easy acting style as Belle's inventor father.

This production of Beauty and the Beast accurately can be described as pure entertainment. But for this former child, at least, that's not enough.

Disney's Beauty and the Beast

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $27.50-$71.50

Call: 410-752-1200 or visit www.ticketmaster.com

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