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REVIEW: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Disney have precious few IPs locked away in their vaults with the same level of prestige and heritage as Beauty and the Beast.

Whilst 1989’s The Little Mermaid is widely agreed to have been the beginning of the House of Mouse’s Nineties renaissance (though some film historians point to the surprise success of 86’s The Great Mouse Detective as the real starting pistol for what was to follow), it was with the cultural and critical juggernaut of Beast that Disney made triumphantly clear that not only were they back with a musical bang, but they were staying put. The first animated film to ever garner a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, and the magnum opus swansong for lyricist Howard Ashman (who sadly succumbed to AIDs in 1991 early into production of Aladdin), Disney’s sumptuous, pitch-perfect take on a ‘tale as old as time’ etched itself indelibly into the history books.

Barring some truly heinous straight-to-video sequels (an unfortunate bi-product of the 90s success story that blighted pretty much every Disney release that decade) and Bill Condon‘s serviceable but mostly forgettable live action remake, Beauty and the Beast has remained mostly unfettered and sitting pretty amongst the very finest that animation and musicals can offer.

It’s no stranger to the stage, either, with former productions in London, Broadway, and the ever-charming micro-show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Florida. But it’s been over 20 years since the Olivier-winning West End Production has trodden the boards here in the UK, and with the Mickey monolith basking in the glow of arguably its third golden era (Frozen, Moana and most recently Encanto all say hi), the time was right to once again bring one of its real MVPs back to center-stage.

Welcoming back Beauty and the Beast veteran Matt West to direct and choreograph, this latest take on the ‘tale as old as time’ carries all of the hallmarks, characters and beloved tunes you’d expect, but is a decidedly new production from top to bottom.

An entirely new ‘beast’, if you will.

As a flurry of projected rose petals sweeps across the curtain screen and the welcoming tones of Angela Lansbury as this production’s Narrator ease us in, it’s clear this is a production that has skimped on neither scale nor artistry. Lansbury’s brief but immediately warming presence quite literally sets the stage, and it’s clear from the off; this is going to be a big, lavish treat that beautifully honors what has come before.

Given the original film’s rather brisk 84-minute run time, it’s little surprise to find both the story and score considerably expanded upon here. All the favorites are present and accounted for, from the buoyant scene-setting of ‘Belle’ to the iconic titular ballad (crooned to perfection here by X Factor-winner-turned-stage-supremo Sam Bailey), but so too do we get the choral ‘I want’ joys of ‘Human Again’, which itself was restored into the animated film for a number of DVD and Blu-Ray releases, and more postulating character beats such as Beast’s’ If I Can’t Love Her ‘(a slightly sombre closer to Act I) and Belle’s more defiant, full-circle’ A Change In Me ‘.

Of course, much of this is in place way back when for the original London and Broadway productions, but it helps immeasurably that the presence of much of the film’s original creative talent coalesced around the stage adaptation, which can be felt throughout, not least of all composer Alan Menken for the additional tunes the show required, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton to flesh out the book.

With such credentials and caliber of writing (both musically and narratively) in place, one could argue it’s impossible to get Beauty and the Beast wrong. But so too did much of the magic of the 1991 classic nestle somewhere nebulously within the rich, vibrant animation, and the performances of a stellar cast that included such heavy hitters as Jerry Orbach, Richard White and of course, the aforementioned Lansbury.

In place of the original’s animation then (bar a few effective and rather heightened video sequences), the tour’s design team, including scenic lead Stanley A. Meyercostume designer Ann Hould-Ward and lighting designer Natasha Katz, have crafted a truly stunning and opulent stage experience. It is rich, colorful and vibrant throughout, and even some of the less dazzling locales such as the Beast’s dungeon, are all rich with detail and character. Key set pieces, such as the seminal ballroom dance sequence, are as glorious as anything you will see on the West End, and the moving, rotating, twisting clockwork nature of the entire piece, frequently abetted by Darrel Maloney spirit Jim Steinmeyer‘s brilliant video and illusory work framing the stage and sets, is a real wonder to behold. A UK tour scarcely brings with it such a degree of scope and scale.

“A real wonder to behold. A UK tour scarcely brings with it such a degree of scope and scale. ”

Thankfully, the cast assembled rise to the challenge of meeting the spectacle around them. Ensemble member Grace Swaby-Moore stepped in for usual Belle Courtney Stapleton for the performance reviewed, and the magic of getting such a Disney Princess moment coursed through her entire delightful performance. This new run presents a decidedly more bookish, contemporary Belle, but Swaby-Moore impressed in rounding out this fuller take on the character with the determination she commands, whilst still channeling the spirit and sweetness of her animated counterpart. She’s ably with at Shaq Taylor who gives one of the turns of the night as the titular Beast. Whilst the character is a little sidelined during the first Act, Taylor makes the most of every beat and moment on stage, and as well as soaring vocals, gives a surprisingly funny and disarming turn as the character’s bestial nature gives way to a more charming , damaged prince underneath.

Tom Senior makes for a dashing and physically imposing Gaston, whilst the ever-dependent Louis Stockil does splendid work as a whirlwind, scene-stealing Le Fou.

Much like the film itself, though, if its romantic duo are its heart, then it’s in the supporting troupe of enchanted items that the magic of Beast really enthrals. Sam Bailey, Emma Caffrey and particularly Samantha Bingley are joyous, vibrant presences on stage as the kindly Mrs. Potts, the flirtatious Babette and bombastic Madame de la Grande Bouche (aka teapot, feather duster and vanity table, respectively), with Bailey a vocal powerhouse as expected, Bingley flat-out hilarious and bombastically brilliant throughout, and Caffrey a sultry, balletic delight .

But it is Gavin Lee spirit Nigel Richards as the iconic Lumiere and Cogsworth who regularly threaten to run away with the entire thing. Both offer distinctive, beautifully observed takes on their characters with razor-sharp comedic timing, physicality and peerless on-stage chemistry, whilst still retaining just enough flavor of the original takes on the iconic duo (such as Lumiere’s thick French lilt, or Cogsworth’s panicked fussiness). Every scene with the duo fizzes with madcap comic energy, and rarely are they anything less than laugh-out-loud delights.

Nowhere is all of this praise for Beast – from the original merits of its peerless music to the scope, scale and performances par excellence of this tour – more evident than in its genuinely show-stopping realization of ‘Be Our Guest’. Again, we’re already in rather legendary territory with Orbach’s original tour-de-force set piece of culinary wordplay and showmanship being itself already regarded as a Broadway revue-styled explosion of color and choreography on screen. Seemingly taking their cue from the over-the-top, best-in-show treatment of the similar ‘Friend Like Me’ sequence in the recent West Run of Aladdinhere West and his team dial everything up to eleven in an extended, toe-tapping, chameleonic number which utterly dazzles (particular credit going here to Katz’s 42nd Street-on-steroids lighting).

With a proud, celebrated heritage and and an Olivier-nabbing predecessor to follow, this latest production of Beauty and the Beast had enormous shoes to fill, and it succeeds on practically every level. You could pick apart a few minor gripes here and there – the ending showdown, for instance, feels a tad rushed and undercooked compared to its barnstorming animated counterpart, and as mentioned one of the titular characters gets a little overlooked for the first hour or so – but it would be dwelling on blemishes of a decidedly majestic whole.

Bringing both the very best of old and new alike, Beauty and the Beast is a grand, lavish spectacle; a tale as old as time and a grandiose, joyful touring production for the ages.

★★★★★

A sweeping, lavish, West-End worthy production with all the magic and joy that anything bearing the mark of this ‘beast’ deserves. A real beauty.

BOOK NOW on the Birmingham Hippodrome and Official Tour Website.

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