Costing Disney some pounds 10m, Robert Jess Roth's staging of the animated cartoon is the most expensive musical ever mounted in London. For enchantment, wit, and power of suggestion, though, it does not come close to the superb Beauty and the Beast produced by the Young Vic on a budget of pounds 70,000 last Christmas. With the latter's resourceful deployment of minimal means and its psychological insights into the myth, that show invited imaginative collaboration from its spellbound young audience. Disney's high-tech pantomime simply requires you to sit back and be blitzed.
There are stretches where you have to succumb. The show-stopping "Be Our Guest" number is a gloriously frivolous extravaganza - a "culinary cabaret" of cavorting cutlery and capering crockery put on as Julie-Alanah Brighten's Belle prepares to take dinner in the Beast's Gothic castle. It's a sequence that genuinely works better on stage than on film because, in the theatre, all this campery - the chorus girls wearing wobbly towers of tea cups; the staircases composed of plates; the high-kicking napkins; and the final explosion of fireworks from two giant champagne bottles that tilt in from the side - comes over like an exhilaratingly potty parody of Ziegfeld Follies and the notion that nothing succeeds like excess. It's also, in the case of the Beast's attractively portrayed servants, funnier to see real-life human beings half turned into objects than drawings of the same. Barry James is a delight as the self-important clock, Cogsworth, who, as he takes Belle on a guided tour of the castle, unveils the principle that "if it's not Baroque, don't fix it". Derek Griffiths as the candelabra and Di Botcher's operatic Welsh Dresser ("Let's see what I've got in my drawers") join him in keeping the ouch! ouch!-inducing spirit of pantomime alive.
Encumbered with a nondescript score (music, Alan Menken; lyrics, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice), the show manages to muffle or miss out or alter most of what makes the fable of Beauty and the Beast potent and mysterious. You don't have to be Bruno Bettelheim to recognise that the story dramatises the dangers of, and the necessity for, transfer of allegiance from a much- loved parent to a sexual partner. But painfully divided loyalty is so little at issue in the musical that Belle's crackpot inventor father (Norman Rossington) has been marginalised, dramatically, well before the finale. The possibility that Belle is attracted to the animal in her captor is decisively ruled out here as Alasdair Harvey's Beast, who undergoes a spectacular aerial transformation back into the Prince, seems to have been seen to by a vet in the sexual department.
Sex, or rather a delicious send-up of it, is left to Burke Moses whose ludicrously narcissistic macho posturings as the muscle-bound he-man Gaston are the best thing in the show.
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