Beauty and the Beast (Phoenix Ensemble)
May 3 – 25
Despite them being problematic from the perspective of modern political correctness, there is a huge affection from Disney musicals. This is evident not only in Phoenix Ensemble’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” enjoying a sold-out season, but from the start of show applause from the all-age audience members packed into the Pavilion Theatre’s new seating bank. The stage is bursting sometimes too with the show’s big ensemble numbers occupying all of the its space, even spilling into the stalls. But it all begins, after a quick opening flashback, with just the one… the Beauty of the title, Belle (Mannao Madar) showcasing share in song of her wish to live in a world full of adventure, like in her books.
When her inventor-father, Maurice (Tony Paull) goes missing, Belle braves the woods in order to save him. When she discovers that her father is being held prisoner, she runs to his aid and confronts the captor Beast (Michael Mills), eventually courageously agreeing to trade places and become his prisoner instead. Those familiar with the Walt Disney Pictures’ Academy Award-winning 1991 animated musical film of the same name, from which it was adapted, know the story behind how the Beast came to be; he was once a spoiled prince, but has been placed under a spell. The occupants of his castle are also cursed and so now must suffer life as animated objects. So, the candlestick, Lumiere (a standout Jason Ianna) and stuffy mantle clock Cogswoth (David Morris) unite with others to bring the sweet but strongminded Belle and belligerent Beast together to break everyone’s curse.
With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (Book by Linda Woolverton), the show features many gorgeous musical numbers, despite some occasional varying vocal levels. Madar is always poised as the vibrant and spirited Belle with a spectacularly strong voice that meets every challenge. As the Beast, Mills showcases some soaring vocals also, especially in his ‘If I Can’t Love Her’ lament about being set to stay a monster forever if he cannot open his heart. And as the Beast becomes more humanised early in Act Two, he adds some nice touches of humour.
Particularly the male members of the ensemble work together to produce some stirring harmonies, evident in vibrant production numbers like ‘Be Our Guest’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Gaston’, the latter led by Elliot Gough as Le Fou. The song about the conceited cardboard character who vies for Belle for all the wrong reasons is an early highlight in its introduction to Josh Nixon’s appropriately over-the-top performance, all swaggersome stance and malpropismed dialogue, by character dimwittedness more than design.
As the suave and debonair castle maître d’, Ianna not only maintains accent throughout, even in lead of ‘Be Our Guest’ as requisite almost-intermission after a long Act One big ensemble cabaret number, but his interaction with flirty former maid, now French feather duster Babette (Jaclyn Johnson) is an added treat. And his measured approach strikes a nice balance to the tightly-wound Cogsworth (#punintended) whose fusspot energy is almost too pantomime.
With puns aplenty and occasional dialogue directly to the audience, there is a real pantomime feel to this show and the playful antics of the animated knickknack and whatnot household objects just wanting to be ‘Human Again’ are a real delight to younger audience members. Scenic design works well to capture the story’s otherworldly elements with seamless scene and prop changes. And though there is limited stage space, the dance numbers are not diminished. Indeed, Amy-Rose Swindells’ choreography sees realisation of some wonderful acrobatic fight scenes. Costumes are all abundantly detailed, with performers coping well with the cumbersome get-ups of the household objects, especially young Chip (Sam Johnson) who can only rely on facial expressions, all of which are fabulously responsive, to determine his scene involvement.
“Beauty and the Beast” is a big and bold experience, full of colour, energy and movement, which makes it easy for its audience members to be captured by the magic of imagination and theatre in unite. When it took to Broadway in 1994, it was a spectacle the likes of which hadn’t ever before been seen on stage and in Phoenix Ensemble’s hands it is easy to appreciate how, since then, it has played more performances than the four longest-running Broadway shows combined. With bold, fantastic characters, beautiful music and just the right touch of charming humour, it remains beloved for a reason as delightful entertainment for audience members of all ages.