CLEARWATER — It takes about 50 child-squirmy minutes for the stage version of Beauty and the Beast to truly tap into the transcendent magic of the Disney flick, and when it does, wow. A chorus line of besotted revelers clink choreographed beer steins in vainglorious salute to Gaston, the preen-first, think-later villain intent on marrying bookworm Belle for all the wrong reasons.
The thunderous applause following Gaston halted the production at Ruth Eckerd Hall for several minutes Wednesday, as did the equally show-stopping Be Our Guest, the over-the-top spinning-plates spectacle that celebrates the titular princess's late-night snack in the Beast's castle. But for all the robust joy and eye-candy kapow of those numbers, you couldn't help think that the sold-out crowd was expressing a certain restless relief, too.
Perhaps to justify its Broadway ticket price — as opposed to shelling out for a movie stub or a DVD — the physical reimagining of Beauty and the Beast has been inflated with more backstory, more chatter, hardly any of the new bloat adding to the classic tale. There are several new songs, too, but the peerless triumvirate of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice gave us the great stuff the first time.
The whole night, with intermission, clocks in at almost three hours; the 1991 Oscar-nominated 'toon, by comparison, is 84 minutes. There were more than a few fidgety tykes who sensed the drastic time change. That said, when the stage production enhances the already sublime moments of the movie — instead of stretching things out with hookless yearners such as the Beast's If I Can't Love Her — you could have waved a Costco crate of gummy bears in front of the kiddos' faces and they wouldn't have blinked. When this Beauty works, it's a royal knockout.
Credit scenic designer Stanley A. Meyer for using an animator's dazzling palette for the constantly shifting sets, and Basil Twist's puppet designs (especially for the pouncing wolves that torment Belle's father Maurice and later the Beast) would make Jim Henson's team jealous.
The acting is good enough, sometimes even revelatory. Hilary Maiberger portrays Belle with typical Disney-princess pluck, but she sounds so much like Paige O'Hara, who voiced the movie's heroine, it's easy to get sucked into her portrayal. As the Beast, Darick Pead cutely expands the role with clumsy, lovesick humor; he doesn't so much roar as scratch his mangy mane in fur-ruffling frustration. And Matt Farcher, although a little on the lean side, has a smirky blast as lunkhead Gaston, one of the hammiest ner'er-do-wells in the Mouse House canon.
When it comes to the inanimate objects who run the castle and long to be human again, some choices work, some don't. As Mrs. Potts, Erin Edelle has the unfair task of being compared with Angela Lansbury, but her earnest smile makes up for an underwhelming voice. Hassan Nazari-Robati plays Lumiere the candelabra like a cross between Austin Powers and Borat — sometimes he's funny, sometimes he's grating. The night's best discovery is Shani Hadjian as Madame de la Grande Bouche, aka the armoire, a former opera diva who bemoans her IKEA hips.
Although there's 30 minutes, at least, of lag that director Rob Roth could certainly speed up — my 8-year-old daughter hung in there, my 4-year-old daughter had patience issues — he delivers on the finale. Disney Imagineering is on full display for the fatal fight between Gaston and the Beast, and that transformative denouement is a how'd-they-do-that trick of acrobatics and slick sleight of hand. When the end finally arrives, the tale as old as time shines as bright and as fresh as that magic rose.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.