Ashland 2017: Beauty and the Beast

Since making a commitment to musical theater a few years ago, OSF has amply demonstrated that it can do musicals brilliantly and well, on both an intimate scale and a — well, spectacular one, in the specific sense of the word ‘spectacle’.  Which is why this year’s signature musical is — ironically enough, precisely like its title heroine — a little odd.  It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with this iteration of Beauty and the Beast…it’s simply that there isn’t enough right.

Let me amplify.  Disney’s animated feature, the film that launched this franchise, is quintessentially Belle’s story — it’s told chiefly from her point of view, and hers is the strongest character arc in it.  The recent live-action feature film is — strangely enough — more Gaston’s story than anyone else’s, as that script delves more deeply into what makes him a villain and is structured so that it’s Gaston who does the most to drive the action forward.  And the Disney-produced stage musical?  This may surprise you if you haven’t seen it, but to my mind that version’s strongest story arc belongs to Lumiere.

I admit to a certain potential bias here.  The specific Disney stage version I’ve seen is that of the very first national touring company, back in the mid-’90s, wherein the role of Lumiere was played by Patrick Page.  I first met Patrick on the high school speech and debate circuit, where we were both doing expository speeches on stage magic — except that I was your average teen-aged amateur performer, and Patrick was already a seasoned professional prestidigitator.  We bonded over our mutual interest in magic, and when Patrick turned up in my college dorm a few years later as a transfer student, we rapidly developed a friendship.

Returning, though, to Beauty and the Beast — in the “official” Disney stage version, there’s a good deal of added material, and most of that material serves to transform the story from a light animated romance into a full-bore Broadway spectacle.  Specifically, it becomes via both script and choreography a French cabaret show, with several new speaking parts for members of the household staff and a major new song, “Human Again”, which supports both a major production number and a much stronger character arc for Lumiere and Cogsworth.  And the result?  Structurally, the changes transform Lumiere’s role from that of a passive narrator to an active master of ceremonies, creating a much stronger character arc for the talking furniture as a whole — and for Lumiere in particular, by way of a specific romantic interest in particular.

Or so I conclude from the touring show I saw all those years ago, in which Patrick’s Lumiere was definitely the prime mover.  And that brings us to the trouble with OSF’s production.  Necessarily, OSF’s version has chosen not to try and match the visual spectacle of the Disney shows — most particularly, there’s no attempt at all to visually replicate the sweep and wonder that’s the Beast’s amazing library.  Instead, it opts for lightning-fast pacing and nearly instant scene changes, moving the action forward as briskly as it can.  But what the production loses in the process are its character moments — with the literally tiny exception of Chip’s, as young Naiya Gardiner perfectly underplays (and steals) every scene she’s in with the help of Kate Mulligan’s Mrs. Potts, possibly the strongest pure vocalist in the cast.  As an ensemble, the cast is excellent — but there’s no one here who emerges as a focus, for either the story or the spectacle.

And as a result, what audiences have in OSF’s production is more a soundtrack album and highlight reel than anything else.  It’s watchable, and listenable, and enjoyable, and even good — but the power and depth that this story can have just isn’t there.