The Muny brings energy and heart to crowd-pleasing "Beauty and the Beast"
By Michelle Kenyon
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is a modern classic. Whether it's the original animated film, the stage production, or the more recent live action film version, this story has found a large, enthusiastic audience over the years. Currently in St. Louis, the Muny is staging a huge, heartfelt production that especially showcases its two leads, as well as an energetic ensemble and some impressive production values.
Considering its adaptations and the enduring popularity of the original movie, the Disney version of the classic tale is perhaps even more well-known than its source story, at least in America. It's so popular that it has even spawned many memes and jokes, as well as fan theories that, although inaccurate in my opinion, are widely repeated. But regardless of what you may think of the story, there's little doubt that it's popular, and that the iconic image of Belle in her gold dress and the Beast in his blue coat is easily recognizable by many. The stage show takes the familiar story, with all its iconic moments from the film, and fleshes it out a bit, including some darker moments that aren't included in the original film, as well as some memorable new songs, and a bit more focus on the servants in the Beast's castle, who have been transformed into household objects by the same spell that turned the selfish young Prince into a Beast, who is hoping to find true love so he and everyone in his household can become human again.
Belle is the focus character, as is usual, and she's as strong-willed and intelligent as ever, while being seen as odd by her neighbors in a small French village, and as an object of vanity by the good-looking but self-obsessed Gaston. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to free her father, the heart of the story is set into motion, and we see how she becomes a catalyst for the Beast's self-reflection and eventual change. The stage show takes a little more time to explore this relationship, as well as the relationship between the Beast and his servants, including Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts; as Gaston continues to plot to get his way, leading to an inevitable confrontation.
The Muny and director John Tartaglia have assembled an excellent cast for this production, led by Ashley Blanchet in a terrific turn as a particularly strong-willed, relatable Belle. Blanchet also has a powerful voice that shines on solo songs like "Home" as well as production numbers like the opening song. Ben Crawford, as the Beast, is also excellent, with strong vocals, memorable stage presence, and excellent chemistry with Blanchet as well as a believable rapport with his household staff, who are all well-cast. Kelvin Moon Loh as the charming Lumiere and Eric Jordan Young as the fastidious Cogsworth especially stand out, and Ann Harada as Mrs. Potts also has some memorable moments, although her voice isn't quite as strong as those of others I've seen in the role. There are also some fun moments from Debby Lennon as opera singer-turned-wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche, Holly Ann Butler as maid-turned-feather duster Babette, and Michael Hobin as Mrs. Potts's son Chip, who has been transformed into a teacup. Claybourne Elder hams it up impressively as the villainous Gaston, as well, matched by Tommy Bracco in a hilarious performance as sidekick LeFou. There's also a strong ensemble playing everyone from townspeople to enchanted objects, who lend energy and enthusiasm to the production numbers, memorably choreographed by Patrick O'Neill and occasionally featuring some eye-catching pyrotechnics.
Visually, the show is recognizable as the Disney classic while also featuring its own spin on the classic look. The set by Ann Beyersdorfer is versatile and detailed, aided by memorable video design by Greg Emetaz, which for the most part is excellent, although there is one unintentionally humorous video moment late in the show that detracts from the overall weight of an important scene. The lighting by Jason Lyons and detailed costumes by Robin McGee also add to the entertaining and occasionally thrilling atmosphere of the production, along with some whimsical puppets designed by Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James. There's also a great Muny Orchestra led by music director Ben Whiteley, playing that lush, melodic score with style.
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” at the Muny is, for the most part, a rousing success. It's a classic tale of love, compassion, and standing out from the crowd, brought to Forest Park again with humor, style, and and occasional touches of whimsy, melancholy, and glamour. Although some moments may be scary for very young children, this is a show that should appeal to all ages, and the crowd certainly loves it. It's another entertaining entry in the Muny's 2023 season.
Performances of “Beauty and the Beast” continue at the Muny until June 30. For more information, visit The Muny web site.