As a hush falls over Manchester’s Palace Theater, the warm, familiar tones of Angela Lansbury introduces the audience to the story of Beauty and the Beast. Fans of the hit 1991 animated movie will immediately recognize her voice as the original Mrs Potts, and wraps those of us who grew up with the film in a blanket of snuggly nostalgia.
The “tale as old as time” is here in Manchester for an epic 10-week run, and from the amount of young children dressed up in Belle’s famous yellow dress swishing through the theater aisles, it is clearly a movie that continues to enchant. The story is that of young book-loving Belle dreaming of “more than this provincial life”, before her world changes forever with the fateful discovery that her father Maurice has been entrapped by a “Beast” inside a magical mansion.
Little does she know that the whole house is under a spell, cast because of the house master’s youthful arrogance to an old beggar woman. Unaware of her magical powers, she transformed him into the Beast until he truly learns to see the beauty within.
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While this new production is a faithful and magical reimagining of that memorable Disney movie, it also boasts important modern notes to the classic fairytale. For one thing, our heroine Belle here is even feistier than the original, brilliantly brought to life on stage by Courtney Stapleton who oozes star quality and commands attention with every word and pitch-perfect vocal note.
She gleefully knocks back the advances of the preening local love god Gaston, played to muscular effect by Tom Senior – who immediately wins the hearts of the audience thanks to his jaw-dropping bicep-flexing entrance. His hilarious ode to himself, Gaston, is among the musical highlights, showcasing the skills of the full ensemble.
Belle is of course more than a match for the Beast when she agrees to the fateful swap to spare her father’s life. Nobly agreeing to stay in the Beast’s mansion “forever”.
The Beast is given powerful life on stage by Shaq Taylor, who stalks his scenes like a caged animal, before a truly mesmerizing and spectacular reveal at the show finale. His stirring vocals impress on his solo performance of If I Can’t Love Her, alongside favorites from the film like the duet with Belle on Something There.
While the leads are true standouts of this musical, its success is in the absolute brilliance of the entire ensemble. X Factor winner Sam Bailey is a fabulous Mrs Potts in a magical teapot costume only surpassed by the incredible stagecraft that brings to life her gorgeous little boy Chip, played by Rojae Simpson who near steals the show as the little teacup.
Bailey gets to sing one of the big highlights of the show – the title track of Beauty and the Beast – as Belle sweeps onto the stage in the now iconic yellow gown to greet Beast, dressed to the nines, for their most romantic of dances. It’s one of many truly unforgettable moments in this triumph of a musical and showcases the breathtaking costume design of Ann Hould-Ward.
But the masterpiece for me arrives at the finale of Act One as the castle comes alive for Be Our Guest, led by the absolute powerhouse of Gavin Lee as Lumiere. He works his little candlestick arms and legs off in this role, and his dazzling tap-dancing star turn through the big show tune brings back the golden days of Hollywood in quite simply sensational style.
As if those dance skills were not enough of a talent, he has a brilliant comedy double act going on with Nigel Richards as Cogsworth – who manages to embody the physicality of a carriage clock with artful aplomb.
Disney Theatrical Productions have taken the opportunity to show their commitment to diversity in the casting of this musical, and it is all the more richer for it. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of star performers, talented musicians, brilliant stagecraft and breathtaking design in one performance – it’s the easiest five stars I’ve ever given.
As a family show, producers state that Beauty and the Beast is suitable for all those aged 6 and over. Although, as a mum myself, I’d offer a little warning that youngsters who easily scare may find some of the woodland scenes with the wolves a little frightening.
If you love your musical theater, then this is an absolute must-see. I loved it so much I’m already booking to go back again.
Beauty and the Beast is at Manchester’s Palace Theater until June 4.
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