Welcome to Part 1 of Aubrey Dan’s swan song, otherwise known as Beauty and the Beast. Normally, yet another production of this overexposed Disney musical would be no big deal, but the touring show now at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is also Dancap Productions’ last presentation in that venue. After the opening next week of Swan Song, Part 2 – Million Dollar Quartet at his other home, North York’s Toronto Centre for the Arts – Dan will have finished his brash five-year run as a local theatre impresario.
Whereas the rockabilly nostalgia of Million Dollar Quartet will likely recall Dan’s biggest success, Jersey Boys, this Beauty and the Beast is emblematic of the kind of uneven, non-Equity fare that padded Dancap’s current money-losing season. It isn’t half-bad, but it’s hardly the kind of knockout show we expect from big-ticket commercial theatre.
Musical theatre nerds may want to see it because it reunites the director (Rob Roth) and creative team of the original Broadway production. They’ve partly reconceived the show for touring, so that at least it doesn’t look like a cheap, miniaturized version of their New York prototype. Now if only they’d also cut some of the fat from its bloated running time. At two-and-a-half hours, it’s almost twice the length of the 1991 animated film on which it’s based. The three little girls in front of me on opening night were squirming well before the intermission. I don’t blame them.
Back when Beauty and the Beast premiered in 1994, the eye-popping stage pyrotechnics kept you from looking at your watch. Today, however, the effects are mostly run-of-the-mill, and this production doesn’t make up for them with anything emotionally engaging. While the score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice isn’t their best work, it can still be moving at times. Here, however, it leaves you dry-eyed. It’s easy to forget you’re watching a classic love story about the triumph of inner beauty.
That’s partly the fault of the two romantic leads. As Belle, the spirited, book-loving heroine, Emily Behny is as wholesome and bland as oatmeal. For someone who devours novels, she doesn’t show a hint of dreaminess, and her singing, while strong, hasn’t a trace of real feeling. Dane Agostinis’s minotaur-like Beast isn’t much of a singer, but he’s quite the comedian. He milks all of his character’s funny moments.
Then again, Roth’s staging puts a heavy accent on comedy. If the Beast didn’t go for some laughs, then the secondary characters – his enchanted household of living inanimate objects – would steal the show. Michael Haller is the most amusing of them as Lumiere, the excitable French candelabra, but he has a fine foil in James May as fussy Cogsworth, the English clock. Jen Bechter as the prima-donna armoire, meanwhile, has a high time channeling Laugh-In’s Jo Anne Worley, who voiced that loudmouth piece of furniture in the film.
Not all performances are as inspired. Playing Gaston, the handsome chauvinist pig who tries to force Belle into marriage, a preening Matt Farcher quickly wears out his welcome. So does slapsticky Jimmy Larkin as Gaston’s goofy, knocked-about sidekick Lefou. And in an embarrassingly amateurish touch, a too-young William A. Martin plays Maurice, Belle’s gentle inventor father.
As an ensemble, though, the company really clicks in the big dance numbers choreographed by Matt West. The Lerner and Loewe-flavoured drinking song Gaston stops the show midway through Act 1, only to be topped later by Be Our Guest, that Busby Berkeley-inspired showcase for dancing dinnerware. It’s a Ziegfeld Follies-like spectacle from Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes to a climax in which the audience is showered in streamers.
Beauty and the Beast is famous as the musical with which Disney set out to conquer the live-theatre biz. Now, we’ll also remember it as one of the shows that marked Aubrey Dan’s retreat.