Naturally, production values rule. Though there's talent aplenty on the stage, the actors are essentially there to animate the exquisite costumes (by Ann Hould-Ward) and brilliantly designed sets (Stanley A. Meyer). The singing voices may be fine, but should they suffer any deficiency in volume, there's powerful amplification to make up for it. And periodically the performers are dwarfed altogether by massive special effects and eye-dazzling pyrotechnical wizardry.
If you go to see a Disney show, you know what to expect. You're looking not for insight or surprise, but for emotional comfort and a confirmation of your worldview. In George Orwell's 1984, the government used machines to compose the nation's never-fail hit songs by splicing together anodyne words and bits of catchy melody. Disney, too, as the company proves in movie after movie, possesses the pleasure formula: Alternate humor with sentiment; use stock characters -- a funny, doddering old father; a heroine who's good and kind and has just enough spunk to be interesting; faithful but kvetchy servants; dancing villagers. The songs in Beauty and the Beast, whether jolly and energetic or wistful, are generic, but the directors know how to stage a musical number that builds steadily in speed and excitement until it leaves the audience gasping.
Like all good fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast carries mythic echoes. French writer/director Jean Cocteau evoked them memorably in his eerily beautiful 1945 film. They're not in evidence here, however; what you get in their place is an eyeful, an easy tear and a good laugh.
All carping aside, Beauty and the Beast does provide a pleasant evening of theater. It's visually stunning, and there are costumes and special effects that have to be seen to be believed. (If anyone out there figures out the magic behind Chip the Cup, please let me know.) The choreography (by Matt West) is sometimes brilliant and always skilled and lively, and some of the scenes -- such as Gaston's song and dance with his mates in the tavern -- give such pure pleasure you want them never to stop.
Like the old man himself, Walt's successors have their inspired moments. In the 1945 film, there was a candelabra made of living human arms. Disney has gone Cocteau one further: As the Beast languishes, trapped in his grim castle by his own hideous form, the servants suffer, too. They have been transformed into such household objects as a teapot, a grandfather clock, salt and pepper shakers, a rug and a cheese grater, and day by day they become more object-like and less human. It's a wonderful stroke of imagination, and these singing, dancing implements provide some of the show's best moments.
Competing with a talkative feather duster or a talking clock is difficult, though, and the play's serious scenes are among its least successful. For the most part, they're mercifully brief. Danyelle Bossardet is a standard-issue Disney heroine: If the part provides any possibility for individuation, for a moment of non-stock feeling or humor, she doesn't seize it. Grant Norman is appealing as the brash, insecure, sometimes childish Beast, less so when he becomes a prince again. But then, bestial and demon lovers have long exercised a powerful sway over women, from Zeus's transformation into a swan to Angel's vampirish lurkings in Buffy's virginal teenage bedroom.
There are some outstanding performances in Beauty and the Beast. Foremost among them is that of Marc G. Dalio as Belle's oafish village suitor, Gaston. Preening and prancing, agleam with self-love and flashing a huge, white-toothed grin, Dalio is as outlandish as a cartoon figure. He also possesses a voice both powerful and supple. Tom Aulina gives a sterling performance as Cogsworth the clock, and David DeVries is a suavely seductive Lumiere with a Maurice Chevalier accent. In the smaller role of an animated feather duster, Louisa Kendrick is purely delicious. Then there's the animated dresser, Madame de Grande Bouche. Hard to say which is more wondrous: the gushing, swooping, coloratura performance of Brooke Elliott in the role, or the plushly chunky costume she inhabits. Anne Kanengeiser makes a charming teapot, though you do tend to wonder, every time she comes on, if keeping her spout arm steady hurts or if wire supports the sleeve.
There's one sour note at the very end of the performance: The Beast dies in Belle's arms, then rises, turning through the air, and descends to earth again in the exact posture of the crucified Christ. For non-Christians, it's an intrusive and presumptuous image, but surely many Christians, too, would feel concern at seeing their Savior's suffering so kitschified.
Need I say that the evening ended with a rapturous standing ovation?