The tale may be as old as time, but this brand-new production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is ever a surprise.
Imagine an enchanted castle where you’re served dinner by dancing plates, entertained by a quick-fire candlestick, warmed by a mumsy teapot, and taken on a grand tour by wind-up clock who keeps everything running to time splendidly. It’s a magical escape for our quirky book-loving heroine, Belle, whose been longing to escape her provincial life. There’s only one snag – his Majesty of the Castle is not your usual Prince – he’s a scary, hairy, ear-splitting roaring Beast. There’s always a but, isn’t there?
The story of Beauty and the Beast needs little introduction. A Prince who dismisses an old woman on her appearance is put under a spell to live as a beast until he can find it in his heart to look beyond appearances, feel love and find it in return. As the years roll by it is clear no ordinary woman is up for the challenge of breaking the spell. Step-forward Belle, who is no ordinary woman.
Belle lives with her inventor father, Maurice – a pair of dreamers who are misfits in their town. Belle is the only girl in town whose head isn’t turned by the handsome but boorish and vain Gaston. In turn her lack of interest only makes him even more determined to make her his wife – tale as old as time indeed.
As for adventurers it’s easy to take a wrong turn, and Maurice ends up lost in the wood where he stumbles upon the hidden castle, becoming a prisoner of the Beast. Fearless Belle comes to his rescue much to the delight of the Beast’s unusual household. Could she be the one to break the spell?
The story is filled with drama, adventure, romance, and magic. Add a terrific score into the mix and it’s no wonder the show is an audience winner. The 1991 film, on which the musical is based, was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Creating that same magic on the stage was a huge leap but four years later it opened on Broadway, becoming one of the top 10 longest running shows in Broadway history.
Disney is never a company to rest on its laurels. And this brand-new production pulls every theatrical trick out of the hat to make sure we’re not disappointed. Even before we’ve reached the end of the first act you can feel the audience itching to leap to their feet as Gavin Lee’s Lumiere, channelling all the glamour and glitz of Liberace, leads the cast in a spectacular extravaganza of Be Our Guest. Stanley A. Meyer’s innovative set design uses multiple layers and projections to make full use of the Palace Theatre’s deep stage – at times it seems to go on for miles. Illusion is piled upon illusion, with live filming of synchronised dance routines projected overhead. The tap-dancing finale to the number is contagious and ends with the audience cheering as they grab party streamers from the air. We’re having so much fun and it’s not even half-way through!
Courtney Stapleton’s Belle wows with her powerful vocals – another hidden strength of this feisty heroine. Opposite her, Shaq Taylor’s Beast is presented more of a minotaur than a towering monster, and the freedom from a fully masked costume leaves space for the character’s emotions, both rage and vulnerability, to be expressed.
Tom Senior brings bulging biceps and heaps of humour to the role of Gaston, milking the part for every inch of comedy with a camp interpretation of the chauvinistic hunter.
While there are some important messages about change and acceptance in the story, not everyone makes those choices. But we all get to cheer those who do, and the audience erupts with shouts of joy when young Rojae Simpson’s Chip runs across the stage freed from his tea-cup spell. It’s magical.
Beauty and the Beast is at The Palace Theatre, Manchester from 31 March to 4 June 2022.
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