beast and bell with roses

Beauty and the Beast – the Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

Wow, what a show! Merely saying it is sensational doesn’t do it justice - as Mr Marks and Mr Spencer might have had it, this is not just a musical, this is a Disney musical, big budget, big effects and big on entertainment.

It starts with the overture and a ten piece orchestra under musical director and conductor Jonathan Gill, which for a touring production is huge and it makes a big difference, real live musicians create a richness, colour and warmth of sound no amount of electronic wizardry can match.

And it doesn’t stop there, every visual effect in the stagecraft arsenal is employed with some delightful nods to cinema for those of a certain age. For example the video projection of the wolves attacking in the forest evoke that period of Gothic horror thrown into cartoons.

The most delightful of all though is the spectacular Be Our Guest which could have been lifted straight from the golden age of musicals and the likes of Top Hat, 42nd Street or the Gold Diggers series, with lines of dancers, massed tap routines and even a tribute to the great Busby Berkeley and his showgirls with ostrich feather giant fans and his overhead shot kaleidoscopic routines.

On Press night Belle was played by understudy Grace Swaby-Moore, and she grabbed the chance to shine with both hands in a lovely performance. She has a lovely voice, looks the part and gave us just the right balance of feisty spirit and innocence. Her A Change in Me in Act 2 was a highlight, the song, incidentally was written in for Toni Braxton when she played the part on Broadway in 1988, and more than earned it's place, being there ever since.

time for tea

Time for tea by candlelight: Nigel Richards as Cogsworth, Sam Bailey as Mrs Potts and Gavin Lee as Lumiere.

Pictures: Johan Persson © Disney

She is the beauty of the piece, while Shaq Taylor grunts in as the beast. Despite a face reminiscent of a grumpy buffalo with a headache he balances his bouts of doing beasty things with some amusing touches and as he tries, with varying levels of success to be a gentleman, brings some lovely comedy to the role to the point we are actually rooting for him. Underneath the horns and fur Taylor also gives us a fine, rich baritone and brings real emotion to his powerful solo If I can’t love her.

When Gavin Lee left college with dreams of stardom he probably didn’t think he would end up in Birmingham playing a candlestick, but here he is, and he is quite superb as Lumiere, the old castle  maître d'. He is funny, believable, or as believable as you can be as a candelabra, sings well and, boy, can he tap dance. He has a lovely double act with Nigel Richards as Cogsworth, the clock. 

For those who do not know the Disney version, a spell was cast upon a pretty nasty, selfish and heartless prince turning him into a beast who had to love and be loved before the last petal on a rose fell or he would be a beast for ever. The rose is helpfully under a glass dome with its own magic so we can see the odd petal fall.

Meanwhile, as sorcery is all inclusive, all the prince’s staff and servants were turned into human objects such as clock and candlestick while Mrs Potts, the cook, (Sam Bailey) turned into a teapot. Babette (Emma Caffrey) the maid turned into a feather duster and Madame de la Grande Bouche, (Samantha Bingley) turned into a chest of drawers.

Mrs Potts’ son Chip is turned into a teacup, and is played in a rotation by Manasseh Mapira, Iesa Miller, Theo Querico or Rojae Simpson. They travel around as a head on a trolley with a little bit of magic in that the trolley is supposedly open yet their body is never seen.

gaston

Tom Senior as the great I am Gaston, using his . . .charm? on Belle, played by Courtney Stapleton, who was indisposed on Press night.

The future of the castle staff and a return to human form depends upon the beast falling in love with someone who falls in love with him, which does at least give them an incentive for a little matchmaking.

As we already have our beauty and our beast there isn’t really a need for any other protagonist, But with a couple of hours to fill, we need a bit more of a story, so enter Gaston.

Gaston is the villager with the mostest; according to his PR he is the best hunter, best looking, best drinker, best . . . well pretty much everything, that is according to him. The village girls all swoon over him, except for the more sensible Belle of course, the village boys want to be like him and all in all he seems to be God’s gift to . . . well people God doesn’t like would be a good guess. He is self centred to the extent that he his like a black hole, everything drawn in and centres on him, he is sexist, ageist and probably lots of other ists as well, but on the very limited plus side he has a fine tenor voice and is a brilliant performance from Tom Senior who well deserved the rapturous, good-natured booing at the curtain call.

His bumbling, sycophantic sidekick, Le Fou, played by Coventry-born Louis Stockil, brings panto slapstick to the party, which lightens the mood, but to be honest, seems, at times, a little out of place. He did it well, mind, and the audience enjoyed his silliness, so what do I know?

Then there is Maurice, played by Martin Ball, who has invented a sort of early mobility scooter powered by lightning, but, fatally, missed out on inventing SatNav which leaves him stranded and lost in the forest, attacked by wolves , seeking refuge in the castle where he is imprisoned by the beast, setting in motion the whole story when Belle intervenes, and to tell more would give the game away.

Around them all is a hard working ensemble who give us everything from villagers to stylish, sophisticated Broadway follies in Lumiere’s homage to the golden age with his show within a show.

The village scenes could be from a big budget panto, the forest from a scene of terror from some dark cartoon while the castle could be lifted from any Gothic horror film from RKO to Hammer to Roger Corman.

The special effects from Jim Steinmeyer, projection and video from Darrel Maloney and set design from Stanley A. Meyer, along with lighting from Natasha Katz and sound from John Shivers, produce a visual and audible treat for the senses with video backdrops, set trucks gliding across or around the stage, giant silver scrolls creating their own choreographed ballet rising and falling from the flies and a magical change from musical set to Vaudeville stage.

The levetational transformation of prince to beast is clever and effective but the transformation from beast to prince is something else, you might even believe it is magic.

The direction and wonderful choreography from Matt West keeps things moving at a cracking pace and whether you like the story or not you will be carried along by what is a magnificent theatrical achievement full of magical stagecraft and brilliant artistry. Sensational and then some. Beauty will be falling for her beast to  26-03-22.

Roger Clarke

09-03-22 

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