Check out who will be our guests at Ruth Eckerd Hall this weekend: Belle, Gaston, the Beast and the rest of the cast of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The Broadway show opened Wednesday night to a packed house.
"This company who will tour in Florida is my 33rd worldwide," said Matt West, who created the choreography for the original Broadway production. "The first couple of years after we opened on Broadway, I traveled to Vienna, Tokyo, Australia, Austria and Argentina and worldwide, setting up productions."
Now, almost 20 years after the Broadway tours began, Beauty and the Beast has a fresh look for the timeless story.
"Disney wanted to put on the national tour again and wanted to get the team of us who had put on the original back together. They asked if we wanted to take what we had done and use that, or start over," West said. "We loved the original show but had new ideas. We took the show apart. It was like a puzzle, but one we were very good at, knew we could solve, and had fun putting it all together."
The team rethought costume designs, lifting the hems of the dresses just a bit so you see the dancers' footwork. They also made the set a lot more transparent because, as West emphasizes, the story really is about seeing through the outside to the inside of the person or object — to see past the exterior, to the heart.
There's still a castle, although it can be moved offstage to make more room for dance numbers. There are still the glorious songs and the comical gaffes by Gaston. But, West said, the production is lighter, easier to take on tour from city to city, which meant the production wouldn't have to increase ticket prices.
"We were all happy with the original and its opulence, but this production has a more open scenic design on stage, which means my dancing changed," he said. "I embellished the choreography with more people in the dance numbers, so the dance numbers are bigger. I think the show has a bigger kick to it now."
The 28 cast members arrived Wednesday from doing the production in Hershey, Penn., where some new members were added to the cast as others' contracts ended. In Hershey, West added his finishing touches to the show.
"I was blown away watching these actors," said West. "They are fantastic. You are getting a brand-new, fresh group of people who are giving their all. It's a wonderful group of actors."
When asked if this was a kids' show or more for adults, West said it was for the family. Some little ones crawl on their parents' laps when they first see the beast, he said, but when the comedic side of the beast emerges, the kids eat it up.
"It's certainly not a kiddie show," said West. "It's a love story and it has adult humor, but the little ones know the story better than we do."
Both adults and children seem to suspend disbelief when watching the show. West talked about how one little boy in Pennsylvania yelled from the balcony. The Beast had gotten angry at Belle and told her to leave the castle. The little boy yelled, "Don't hurt her!" when the Beast grabbed for Belle's arm. It's that real to the audience, yet it also transports viewers into an enchanting world through dazzling costumes, gorgeous songs and a stunning set blended with an unforgettable story.
"This new production of Beauty and the Beast defies the imagination," said Ruth Eckerd Hall president and CEO Zev Buffman. "It is living proof that, like good wine, it improves greatly through the harsh test of time. It is a beauty."
Correspondent Theodora Aggeles can be reached at [email protected]