TAMPA — Whether the Disney dominance of Broadway is a good thing has been a topic of debate among theater lovers for years.
Beauty and the Beast, which runs through Sunday at the Straz Center's Morsani Hall, offers fodder for both sides.
On one hand, it's ultimately treacle, a centuries-old and overly familiar children's story, basically a live-action version of a hugely popular 20-year-old cartoon.
The upside is that Disney has virtually bottomless pockets. So, from their inception to their road-show stagings, Disney shows can attract the world's best writers, directors, designers and performers.
Every element of this incarnation of Beauty and the Beast is wondrous, and in the end the gloriously old-fashioned stagecraft and the excellent performances triumph over the lightweight core of the story and deliver a gorgeous and mildly moving experience.
A synopsis seems unnecessary, but just in case: A spell has turned a handsome prince into a hideous beast. He will be turned back into a prince if he can find love. But as time goes by, his beastly nature progressively subverts his humanness, making it more difficult for someone to love him.
Into his life comes Belle, who's bookish and beautiful and sees through his churlish exterior. Happily ever after. The end.
Composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice don't provide us with any truly great songs. But they give us a lot of very good ones and no bad ones, and the arrangements for the nine-piece pit orchestra are gorgeous.
Where this show really shines is in its stagecraft and its performances. Justin Glaser, as the Beast, wields a stunning baritone voice and has many wonderful acting moments even with his face being obscured for virtually the entire show. Liz Shivener is vocally solid but not spectacular. Her performance excels through her charming portrayal of the naive but strong-willed Belle.
Nathaniel Hackmann is appropriately despicable as the villain Gaston. (The audience booed him during the curtain call, and he accepted the reaction as the compliment it was. Still, you have to think he'd appreciate some applause.) Michael Fatica is stunningly acrobatic as Gaston's sidekick Lefou.
Other excellent performances abound, but the sets and costumes leave just as much of an impression. Stanley A. Meyer has created an uncountable number of gloriously beautiful sets, from the deliciously Gothic dankness of the Beast's castle to Candyland colors of Belle's library. It's a very low-tech (though obviously not low-budget) set, which adds to the show's warmth.
Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are equally luscious, from peasant garb in the early scenes to elegant formal wear in the finale and the ornate costumes of the half-human candlesticks, clocks and teapots that share the Beast's spell.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.