I'd heard that the most frightening part of this Disney musical wasn't the beast of the title, but the wolves and ogres in the deep, dark forest. Yet these beasts aren't particularly scary; no need to keep the kids away on their account. No, the part that will make you jump comes when our heroine has ventured into the inner sanctum of the castle, and suddenly... Let's just say an unexpected visitor appears.
This moment, genuinely frightening and effective as it is, also points up a basic shortcoming in this Disney-fied musicalization of a movie of a fairy tale. The issue isn't with Grant Norman (the Beast), who combines a powerful stage presence with a commanding voice. The problem is that there is no need for the lion-growl audio effects during his angry moments. They're so obviously not his. As with the fireworks and the flashiest of the more superfluous costumes, the designers have bludg-eoned us with effects better suited to the movies than the theater. Everyone lauds special effects like these, as if they were the entire point; but the gizmos and the pop-flashes should serve the story, not be the excuse for it -- especially in a musical about the deceptiveness of appearances and the importance of emotions. Ironically, in a show about our need to imagine, the Disney Imagineers don't really trust us to use our imaginations much at all.
While some of the tricks are quite impressive -- the trompe l'oeil castle, the head on the platter -- we should also appreciate the less glitzy, more traditional features of this show, namely the performances. Hopefully, audiences will also notice Norman's power, Danyelle Bossardet's ability to be lovely and tough at the same time as Belle, and Jay Russell's mix of swagger, vulnerability and comedy while dressed as a candelabra.
The media notes emphasize that the production's justly famous costumes contribute to the idea that the kitchen furnishings -- clock, teapot, feather duster and so on -- are progressively becoming dehumanized along with their master, the Beast. But aside from a wind-up key stuck in Cogsworth's back and a few extra feathers on that sexy bombshell of a feather duster (va-va-voom!), what's the difference between these characters and, say, Gaston (who could use a little moral instruction of his own)? It's not only the Beast who needs to learn about kindness, respect and selflessness. The kitchen utensils -- and, by extension, all of us sitting out there in the dark -- also need to be reminded how to be humble, well-mannered and loving.
But we also need to exercise our imaginations as we practice what we know to be true -- and nothing is left to the imagination in "Be Our Guest," the extravaganza we all remember from the 1991 movie. You can just tell that for this one, Disney felt obligated to outdo itself. Belle is welcomed to the dining room by an array of dancing forks and spoons that out-buzzes Busby Berkeley. Still, generosity that overwhelms the recipient isn't truly gracious; it's overbearing. Belle gets blown away by solicitous kitchen implements because Disney wants the audience to be blown away. In this self-parody of a gargantuan production number, the Disney folks want us to see how hard they're trying. Really, really trying. In the final analysis, however, a guy prancing around with an enormous silver cake server on his back isn't so much a talented dancer as, well, a guy wearing a goofy-looking cake server.
Even if it's over every top you've ever heard of, "Be Our Guest" is bouncy and fun, and the title song is genuinely beautiful (never more than when sung by Anne Kanengeiser as Mrs. Potts and Ron Bagden as Cogsworth during the title lovers' two ballroom-dance duets). But let's face it -- can anybody sing or hum or even name any of the other songs in this show? A theorem came to mind as I was watching: to the extent that a song advances the plot, it will not be memorable. It's too busy making plot-points.
Okay, so I've gotten all harsh and hyper-critical in this review. But really, this is good, clean Disney fun. Your family will love it. It's just not the Exalted Musical Yardstick by which all other shows should forever be measured.
And yet... my companion (who's almost five) sat nearly motionless, perched on her folding theater seat, legs sticking straight out in front of her. She gaped at all the flashing lights and peppered me with questions about who was doing the talking during all those booming voice-overs, and why was that teapot acting so funny, and would Belle ever be safe, and would the Beast ever learn to be nicer?
In the face of that, what matter critical carpings? "Disney magic" trumps 'em every time. So, sure, go see the show and take the kids (including tonight, there are six shows left). But afterwards, read them the story; discuss how the show differs from the movie and the original fairy tale; talk about how the story made them feel. And remind them that Belle treasures her books over any potential kingdom. Only then will we give our imaginations a full workout.