Review: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at The Academy of Music in Philadelphia

The new touring production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, now playing at the Academy of Music, doesn’t offer many surprises. But for the show’s devoted fans – and judging from the throng of old and young theatergoers on opening night, there are a lot of them – that’s just the way they like it.

If you love the show (and the 1991 Disney animated movie it’s based on), you’ll probably eat this production up like the opening night audience did, laughing at the punchlines and even laughing in anticipation just before the punchlines. But even if you think this tale of a cursed prince-turned-beast and the village girl who comes to love him is too hokey or too juvenile, you’ll still find things to enjoy this time around, including a cast of excellent singers. And there’s a spirited lead performance by Brooke Quintana as Belle, the defiantly independent girl with a song in her heart, a book in her hand, and a talking wardrobe in her bedroom.

Brooke Quintana (Belle) and Sam Hartley (the Beast). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Brooke Quintana (Belle) and Sam Hartley (the Beast). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Director Rob Roth and Choreographer Matt West of this show’s 1994-2007 Broadway production have teamed up again for this tour, and they’re using a lot of the design elements they used on Broadway. This means that we’re seeing the same set design (by Stanley A. Meyer), costumes (Ann Hould-Ward), and lighting design (Natasha Katz) as in the original, along with the same fight direction, illusions, and musical orchestrations and arrangements.

Alas, some of those design elements have seen better days. The light-up “flames” that serve as the human candlestick Lumière’s hands looked tattered and failed to work properly for much of the show on opening night, while the puppets used for the wolf attack on Belle’s father looked ragged. And some parts of the production could stand to be redesigned, especially David H. Lawrence’s wigs, which no longer look remotely fresh or natural. The production’s budget also cuts some corners; some of the flashier special effects have been replaced by blackouts.

Most of West’s choreography has held up well, especially the vigorous clanking of beer steins in the song “Gaston, and “Be Our Guest” that features can-can girls and dancing forks.

Linda Woolverton’s book hews closely to the plot of the script she wrote for the movie version, but it’s not until the second act, when the plot centers almost exclusively on the Belle/Beast romance, that it obtains a depth of feeling that makes it especially heartwarming. It’s no accident that this tale that teaches children about the benefits of kindness, courtesy and respect has proven so durable with several generations.

Fortunately, the show’s best feature, its score, is well-served. The movie songs by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics) retain their sense of grace, melodicism, and wit, and the songs added for Broadway (with lyrics by Tim Rice) include some poignant ballads that fit the score’s style well. (The comedy number “Maison des Lunes,” has been eliminated this time around. That’s probably for the best – it brought things to a halt the two times I’ve seen the show before.)

Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as Gaston and the cast of 'Disney's Beauty and the Beast.' Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as Gaston and the cast of ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

As the Beast, Sam Hartley has a nice tenor voice and an excellent vibrato. His performance emphasizes the character’s comic side at the expense of the dramatic – during the early scenes, this Beast never seems like much of a threat to Belle or her father.

As Belle’s suitor Gaston, Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek sings superbly. There are nice comic turns by Matt DaSilva as Gaston’s somersaulting sidekick, Ryan N. Phillips as the self-consciously hammy Lumière, and Melanie Jones, who gives the French feather duster Babette the right flavor of sauciness.

But it’s Quintana’s turn as Belle that is the best thing about this sweet production of Beauty and the Beast. She has a lovely soprano tone with excellent diction and clarity, and her acting successfully depicts Belle’s transformation from the “odd” girl of her village to a mature, responsible heroine. She gives this show filled with singing candlesticks, talking teacups and dancing forks an essential touch of humanity.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast plays through February 21, 2016 and is presented by Broadway Philadelphia, performing at the Academy of Music – Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 731-3333, or purchase them online.

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