By Jay Darcy
I’ve seen enough Disney musicals to know they pull out all the stops. Budget doesn’t seem to be a thing of concern for Disney Theatrical Productions.
Beauty and the Beast is the stage musical adaptation of the Disney musical animated film of the same name, itself based on the classic fairytale. The current UK tour is a brand-new production, having been redesigned by the original creative team who designed the Broadway production – allowing the original creatives to have another go at the musical, this time with modern technology.
It’s certainly one of the most elaborate productions I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen – well, everything. In fact, after the show, I did a vox pop, and I was asked why people should listen to my advice to see the show – and that was my response: I’ve seen everything, and this is one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen!
Press night was fabulous from the beginning; ATG wanted to make this one extra special. On arrival, we were given roses, wine, and cupcakes with red frosting (vaguely resembling roses). They truly made us feel like guests. Whilst this might have softened us critics up, there really was no need: the musical speaks for itself.
The set design is incredibly impressive, as one always expects from a Disney musical. Bedknobs and Broomsticks – which is also currently touring the UK, and we have reviewed twice – is not quite as elaborate, but part of that musical’s charm is its use of actors to bring on and take off props, instead of relying entirely on machinery. Still, the flying bed and broom are mind-boggingly marvellous. How do they do that?!
Similarly, Beauty and the Beast has the Beast “fly” as part of his transformation, shocking audiences. I tried so hard to spot a string, but I could not see one. Moment earlier, when Gaston fell from the castle, the string attached to his body was very visible – Disney clearly wanted to save the magic for the metaphorphosis.
From the flying carpet in Aladdin to Elsa’s dress change in Frozen, Disney knows how to create magic onstage. In fact, I bumped into Matt Croke – the second and final actor to play Aladdin in the West End – during the interval. We spoke about the spectacular performance of ‘Be My Guest’ – truly one of the most incredible numbers I have ever seen; I knew it would be remarkable, yet it exceeded my expectations. I told him that I was smiling throughout the entire performance, just like I did during ‘A Whole New World’ in Aladdin. Matt compared ‘Be My Guest’ to ‘Friend Like Me’ in Aladdin – he said audiences think that surely the interval will be straight after that huge number, but the act continues.
Whilst ‘Be My Guest’ had be smiling, the end of the second act had me crying – tears of joy! The Beast and the household staff transforming back into humans was beautiful to see – especially Mrs Potts (Sam Bailey) reuniting with Chip (Rojae Simpson), who had previously asked his mother if he’d ever be a boy again. Their reunion, as humans, was especially poignant. Oh, I’m almost tearing up just writing this.
The cast deserve particular praise. I knew of Courtney Stapleton from Six, a gig musical that requires big voices, but she still exceeded my expectations. Her characterisation of Belle was perfect. Shaq Taylor was brillisnt as the Beast.
The supporting cast were arguably the best characters. Maurice, Belle’s father, was played to perfection by Martin Ball (Casualty, Chalk, Keeping Mum, Top Hat). Tom Senior was brilliant as the egotistical Gaston – definitely one of the most loveable villains I’ve seen in musical theatre. The staff were all exceptional. Liam Buckland (covering for Louis Stockil) was hilarious as Gaston’s pathetic sidekick, Le Fou.
However, it was the household staff that truly stole the show. Gavin Lee (Lumiere) is a 2 x Tony and Oliviet nominee and a 2 x Drama Desk winner, so my expectations were high, and he did not disappoint. He had fantastic chemistry and banter with Nigel Richards (Cogsworth). Samantha Bingley (Madame) had an incredible pair of lungs, and Emma Caffrey (Babette) was fabulously French!
Sam Bailey, best-known for winning The X Factor and being in the original cast of Fat Friends, had big boots to fill, for Mrs Potts was originally voiced by none other than Dame Angela Lansbury DBE (who narrated the prologue in this stage musical). I saw Bailey in Chicago some few years back; she played Matron “Mama” Morton – set to be played by Sheila Ferguson (lead singer of the Three Degrees) when the current tour comes to Manchester, and soon to be played by Gemma Collins (TOWIE). Bailey honoured the original portrayal whilst also making the role her own, and her relationship with Chip was adorable.
If I had to find a criticism for this marvellous musical, I’d simply acknowledge that some people might think that it has an overreliance on projections. Projections are used to create set and scenery, to great effect – especially the opening prologue – but its continuous use arguably takes away from the magic. Heck, instead of using a real circular mirror when the dancers lay on the floor in a circle and danced, they projected a recording. But this was so unique and well-done; I absolutely loved it!
Furthermore, the use of projections makes this musical unique; like Bedknobs and Broomsticks uses its cast to bring on and take off set, this musical will be remembered for the gorgeous images and video footage projected on to both a screen that occasionally covered the front of the stage and the set itself. A memorable moment came when Maurice is almost eaten alive by wolves in the woods.
This musical was near-perfect. From the costumes to the lighting, it’s hard to find anything to fault. Nostalgic, magical, brilliant – and beautiful.
Beauty and the Beast plays at Manchester’s Palace Theatre from 31st March until 4th June, before continuing its UK tour until January 2023.
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