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Let me start out this review by admitting a somewhat embarrassing fact: Over the past 13 years, between the two of us, Nancy and I have seen the stage version of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" 10 times.
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure how this happened. We started out innocently enough by catching Deborah Gibson after she went into the original Broadway production in 1997. Then we just happened to be down in NYC in the Fall of 1998 as Toni Braxton was joining that show. And since Nancy and I thought it might be interesting to see what this R & B artist would do with the role of Belle, we dropped by the Palace Theater box office and bought tickets (Which turned out to be a really smart move. For our money, anyway, Braxton was the very best "Beauty" we ever saw on Broadway).
And then -- when Andrea McArdle joined the cast in 1999 -- Nancy and I revisited this show because ... Well, this was the original Annie now playing Belle. So we wanted to see how McArdle stacked up against our recollections of Gibson & Braxton.
Liz Shivener as Belle and Justin Glaser as the Beast in the NETworks Presentations, Inc. production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright 2009 - 2010 NETworks Presentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Then when Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" moved from the Lunt-Fontanne, we thought it might be interesting to see how this slightly-pared-down version of the show compared to the original Broadway production. From there, we caught one of the very first regional productions of this musical (Which was at the North Shore Music Theatre in July of 2004) as well as one of the first amateur productions (Which -- if I'm remembering correctly -- was done by a community theater group in Fall River, Massachusetts).
And after that -- in June of 2006 -- Jeff Lange and I just happened to be in NYC covering Toy Fair when "Beauty and the Beast" presented its 5000th performance. And thinking that this was the sort of milestone that JHM should cover, Jeff & I dropped by the Lunt-Fontanne that night. Then later that same summer, Nancy had to see "B & B" because one of her favorite ABC soap stars -- Jacob Young of "All My Children" -- had just been hired to play Lumiere. And then -- after I did a phone interview with Donny Osmond as he was getting ready to play Gaston in this long-running Broadway show -- he was gracious enough to invite Nancy and I to come watch him perform.
And then the people of Disney Theatrical invited us to come down and cover "Beauty and the Beast" 's closing night on July 29, 2007. Which is how Nancy and I wound up seeing this particular musical -- between the two of us -- 10 different times. Which -- again, for some reason -- I consider to be kind of embarrassing.
The cast of NETworks Presentations, Inc. production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright 2009 - 2010 NETworks Presentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Anyway ... I told you that story because -- just last week -- Nancy and I caught our 11th production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Which was the new touring company that NETworks Presentations, Inc. mounted with the help of the creative team that mounted the original Broadway production: Director Rob Roth, choreographer Matt West, scenic designer Stanley A. Meyer, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and lighting designer Natasha Katz.
I actually got the chance to talk with Rob before Nancy and I went to see this show in Worcester at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. And Roth talked about how he and his creative team approached putting together this new touring company. How they kept telling themselves: "Forget about what we did on Broadway. What should we be doing now? What's the smartest way to service this story?"
Well, to Roth & Co.'s thinking, a lumbering "Beast" just wouldn't work for audiences in 2010. Which is why they made some very smart trims. Cutting Belle & Maurice's song, "No Matter What," from the first act (Which -- truth be told -- was only added to the original Broadway version of this musical to beef up the role of Belle's father. So that Tony Award-winner Tom Bosley would then agree to play Maurice) as well as dropping Gaston, Lefou and Monsieur d'Arque's comic song from the second act, "Maison Des Lunes."
Christopher Spencer as Maurice in the NETworks Presentations, Inc. production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright 2009 - 2010 NETworks Presentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
They then took a far more stylized approach to this show's sets ...
Justin Glaser performs "If I Can't Love Her" in the NETworksPresentations, Inc. production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright 2009 - 2010NETworks Presentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
... and costumes ...
(L to R) Keith Kirkwood as Cogsworth, Jen Bechter as Madame de laGrande Bouche and Merritt David Janes as Lumiere in the NETworks Presentations, Inc. production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright 2009 - 2010 NETworks Presentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
... which then turned Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" into a far tighter, faster paced piece of entertainment. A night of musical theater that -- while still getting all of the same laughs & tears that the original Broadway version did -- no longer has any saggy spots. Moments where the cast used to have to vamp in front of a curtain while stagehands muscled some 2-ton castle into place behind-the-scenes.
Nathaniel Hackman as Gaston, Michael Fatica as Lefou and the ensemble of NETworks Presentations, Inc.'s production of Disney's"Beauty and the Beast." Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright 2009 -2010 NETworks Presentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Mind you, one of the main reasons that this particular touring company of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" seems to be so energetic, so light on their feet is that Roth & West has drilled this obviously-young cast within an inch of their lives. And these kids are clearly committed to delivering Bob & Matt's vision of this show. Which is why -- in the big production numbers like "Be Our Guest," "Gaston," "Human Again" and "Kill the Beast" -- this ensemble moves as one. Creating all sorts of pretty pictures up there onstage.
Now add to this mix Justin Glaser's take on the Beast (which borrows a page or two from Aston Kutcher) and Liz Shivener (who -- at times -- seems to be channeling Reese Witherspoon)'s Belle ...
Justin Glaser as the Beast and Liz Shivener as Bellein the NETworks Presentations, Inc. production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Photo by JoanMarcus. Copyright 2009 - 2010 NETworksPresentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
... and you wind up with a reimagined version of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" that -- while is still faithful to its source material -- feels surprisingly fresh & new. A contemporary take on this classic piece of entertainment, if you will. Which is why I urge you -- if you get the chance -- to catch this NETworks Presentations, Inc. production while it's touring the country over the coming year.
Liz Shivener as Belle and the ensemble of NETworks Presentations, Inc.'s production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Photo by JoanMarcus. Copyright 2009 - 2010 NETworks Presentations, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Oh, and let me share one interesting factoid that was buried down deep inside of the program for this production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." You remember that Disney Digital 3D version of this Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale film that's headed for theaters next February? Well, according to Sir Tim Rice's listing in the "Who's Who in The Cast" section of this program ...
" ... (Rice) is currently working with Alan Menken on songs for a new film version of 'Beauty and the Beast.' "
Could this be the live-action version of this stage musical that Michael Eisner once talked about producing? If so, will Linda Woolverton (who helped write the original screenplay for "Beauty and the Beast" as well as the libretto for the stage version of this show. More recently, Linda worked with Tim Burton on the screenplay for the new 3D version of "Alice in Wonderland" and was just signed to write the script for "Maleficent." Which Disney hopes will eventually become its own "Wicked" -like take on the Sleeping Beauty story) be back to help guide the Beast & Belle's return to the big screen?
I don't supposed that there are any Mouse House insiders out there who have information that they'd be willing to share about Disney's second take on this "... Tale as Old as Time"? If so, I'm all ears.
Favorite Disney movie. Favorite Disney Broadway musical (aside from Aida). I want to see the new adaption, but I find it hard to believe it could top the original.
Katharine McPhee for Belle in the film version! That'd be amazing.