Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice , music by Alan Menken
Mention the word Disney and most of us recall the syrupy smiles of wide-eyed hopeful child-starlets mixing it up with the squeaky-clean Mouseketeers, while flashing back to Tinkerbell, Snow White and wishing upon a star…
Some talented Australian musical performers have come together to perform one of those (in)famous Disney musical fantasies Beauty and the Beast, which has found its way across the Pacific to New Farm’s Harvest Rain Theatre. But beware the rich vocals, precision performances and design excellence of this first-ever Queensland production are anything but fantasy, for they are very real and very good.
The reality of this achievement gave even this dedicated Disney cynic a few pleasant surprises.
Far away from the monotonous average of today’s social life, the first scene of this musical theatre production delivers the audience into the heart of a vibrant bunch of French village folk, including frocked maids and fresh-faced lads, singing their hearts out and dancing over cobbled lanes framed with stone house-fronts. The first surprise is the striking harmonies. The second is the set. And then the audience is further captivated by the singular beauty and fine voice of Angela Cornford who plays Belle. Yes, it’s almost unbelievable. She really does look like Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she performs just like her too, and amazingly enough it’s not nauseating.
But an Australian audience may not be familiar with the story, or its history, because this musical has spent its last decade dancing on the Broadway stage. Just after the Second World War, a French woman, Madame Leprince de Beaumont, wrote a fairytale called La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast). After translation, and as with most fairytales, it reveals a stern moral message: virtue always triumphs over beauty. A very Western attitude, perhaps.
The story begins with an old woman who visits a prince at his castle and offers him a single rose. The prince, played in this case by Luke Kennedy, is so revolted at the sight of the old beggar woman that he rudely sends her away. The old woman, who is really a beautiful enchantress, then casts an evil spell on the prince and anyone else in the castle, turning him into an ugly beast, and the castle dwellers into objects, even after the prince apologises. So he locks himself away in his castle and is told the only way to break the spell is by loving another person and being loved in return.
In 1946 French director Jean Cocteau spun the story into a stage musical and it became a hit. Forty years later, Disney borrowed the tale and turned it into a feature film, and the original Broadway musical boasts some amazing statistics, although none of them included an award: it allegedly took 10 kilos of human hair and over 400 man-hours to create the very first American Beast. And the Broadway cast, we are told, consumed 460,500 cough drops. Was that from coughing, or gagging at the script?
The first obstacle for the Queensland production crew was the legal one. It took them four years to get the rights to the show. And the next obstacle was to get audiences to warm to this strictly European/American, potentially out-of-touch, musical.
But they’ve done it. Director Tim O’Connor, artistic directors David and Robbie Parkin, and designer Joshua McIntosh combined talents and created a show guaranteed to charm Australian audiences and even the most hardened cynic.
It is hard to imagine how the crew managed to design and stitch together nearly thirty individually-designed elaborate costumes in seven weeks. Latex and polyurethane producers must have been in overdrive! The costumes play a pivotal role in the story and are outstanding. From the figure-hugging sparkling gold-and-cream tapered gown worn by Belle, to the candle outfit worn by Sean Pollard as Lumiere as a kind of prosthetic limb, to Madame de la Grande Bouche ( the lady with the big mouth), the costumes are clearly individually tailored, accommodating body shapes, personality quirks and characters, and even add a touch of humour.
The costuming of the dishes, forks and salt-and-pepper shakers is also well done. I particularly liked the costume worn by Sharon Stoodley as the cheese grater.
The Beast, however, is the least convincing in terms of his outfit, which is out of sync with the other characters. He wears only a headpiece and cape and this contrasts with the sophisticated full body-suits worn, sometimes with a struggle, by the rest of the cast. Additionally, the headpiece looks more like a $5 Toystore mask rather than a custom-made headdress.
Angela Cornford as Belle the Beauty has it all good looks, great acting ability, an admirable stage presence and a keen interpretation of the tragic. And did I say a magnificent voice? Her deep love for the Beast and her father is believable and assisted by great makeup, her natural good looks accompanied by a peony mouth and large innocent eyes. What is most noticeable about Cornford, however, is the unusual trill in her voice and her enchanting delivery.
Lumiere was another name whispered frequently at intermission by various members of the audience. Sean Pollard plays this tricky role where he must dance, sing, hang on to his cumbersome costume and deliver lines while employing a French accent. Lumiere, French for light, is really a man who has been changed into a candle to light the way for the beast after the curse placed on the prince turns everyone in the castle into a piece of furniture, food, crockery or cutlery. Pollard’s performance includes critical attention to facial expression and an intuitive sense of the comic.
Wizardry of a different kind is also at work this musical. Revolving stages and reversible sets combine to allow a seamless evolution between scenes. This provides a mark of distinction between the usual crude stage devices of amateur theatre and professional staging. And that rose! I still can’t work out how the single rose, illuminated on one side of the stage, loses its petals gradually during the show. Three staircases are used to assist the action and the fact that they actually go nowhere is cleverly disguised by the use of curtained doorways, smoke screens and strobe lighting.
The final song of the evening, obviously the theme song, repeats the title of the musical and was the only one I vaguely recognised. I must confess I found myself humming it in James Street later on. Very uncool. But now as I try to remember it, I get it confused with the theme song from Phantom of the Opera , or was it Chess ? They all sound the same to me after a while. It’s a pity that the other songs in this musical by Tim Rice are not as memorable, but nonetheless they’re beautifully performed in this production.
This production of Beauty and the Beast is a great show for the entire family, nuclear or non-nuclear, as well as other minority groups. A warning, however get there early as there is no allocated seating and on Saturday night there were traces of seat rage, even among Harvest Rain’s usually polite audience.
Directed by Tim O’Connor
Playing until 8 April 2006, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday matinees at 2pm
Duration: Just over 2 hours with a 20 minute interval