As Disney princesses go, Belle was always a girl I could get behind: bookish and distracted, and not at all embarrassed by her weirdo parent.
"Isn't that nice?" I pointed out. "Look how sweet she is to her Daddy. She sees how great he is, even if the world thinks he's a little weird." (The kids are onto us, by the way, with the not-subtle moralizing. Not saying we shouldn’t do it.)
When I decided to go to the Paramount Theatre's short run of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, I approached this fairy tale-turned-movie-turned-Ice-Capades-turned-Broadway-hit version of the story with some skepticism. I mean really, how much money do they have to wring out of a thing? Then again, anyone who's ever seen the stage production of The Lion King knows you can make amazing, breathtaking, fully realized ART out of these li'l old Disney cartoons.
Would Beauty be that? Amazing? Breathtaking? Or simply a reliable way to milk a particularly charming cash cow (think: Disney on Ice).
And how would I feel about my favorite princess being rendered in real life, with, you know, a human-proportioned waist?
I didn't think I'd be saying this, but: Beauty and the Beast, the play, is *better* than the beloved movie. More on that soon.
For those who haven't watched the movie a thousand times (or, I guess there's also, like, a book?) the story is this:
In a small, French village lives a dreamy girl who loves to read (Belle) and her oddball inventor single dad (no wicked stepmothers to be found, for once). Nearby is a castle with a vaguely humanoid beast and his enchanted household. The Beast used to be a young man who was as easy on the eyes as he was shallow and cruel, until an enchantress put a spell on his castle until he learned how to love – and earned love in return. Time is running out; if the loving doesn’t happen soon, he and his castle will be doomed for eternity.
Oh, also, an ego-oaf named Gaston has decided to marry Belle because she's the best-looking girl in town, but Belle is having none of it.
Eventually, Belle ends up trapped in the castle, where she is helped by some of the enchanted objects (teapots and so on). Can she help the Beast overcome his spell and learn to love again, and avoid the dreaded Gaston?
Why did I love this so much, and what set it apart from what I’d gotten from countless viewings of the movie? Two things, working well together: Spectacle and heart.
This production of Beauty is a glorious spectacle — the full-throated ensemble wows whenever it gets on stage, particularly in "Be Our Guest," a showstopper of a number that had little kids in our row scooting to the aisle to gather shiny streamers. Other favorite magic includes Chip, the little teacup, rendered in a setup that will have small children amazed (suffice it to say that he really does seem like a talking teacup). The sets are stunning, and the costumes lavish, if a little over the top. (In her various fancy dresses, Brooke Quintana, as Belle, would be as at home on the top of a wedding cake as on the stage.)
But in addition to all the Wow, the stage play gives these characters — particularly Sam Hartley’s Beast — more depth than I ever noticed in two dimensions.
Yes, there’s some complex humanity going on, here. Neither Belle nor the Beast quite fit in the world, and in the play they acknowledge that to each other. They aren’t seen, really.
And that’s what all of us want, right? And what we want, certainly, for our children: To be with people who make the effort to see us deeply and who love what they see. This Beauty and the Beast gives us two characters who bother to look and to listen, so thoroughly that the externals cease to matter.
The Beast’s very beastishness makes that moral so clear that we might miss that he and Belle, for all their external differences, share the exact same need. From the beginning, Belle isn't seen. The whole opening act is how much her town doesn't get her. Her would-be suitor, Gaston, is gorgeous (and gorgeously, hilariously performed by Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek) but doesn’t see her even enough to see that she’s not interested. Even her beloved Dad is a little too weird to really pay attention.
But the Beast … pays attention. Where Gaston gives Belle boasts, the Beast gives her a library.
The Beast is, ironically and without question, the most human character in the story. He's awkward and insecure, and he can't control his temper. He loves Belle but is confused about what to do with that. He's afraid of being laughed at, and who can’t relate? Hartley works the human angle for some surprisingly good laughs – as when the Beast puts in a yeoman's effort to choke out the word "please," or turns to Lumiere with a quick, delighted fist pump once he thinks he's finally getting somewhere with Belle.
If you, too, like a good moral, for your children or for yourself, Beauty and the Beast has one of my favorites: We all deserve to be seen. So let’s bother, also, to look. Or you can just go for the spectacle. The ones on the stage are stupendous, but the little girls running down the aisles in their sparkly dresses are pretty satisfying, too.
Parents should know
The play is appropriate for all ages, and we actually found it a lot less scary. Terrifying scenes from the movie that are manageable when confined to a screen have been wisely toned down for the larger, three-dimensional world of the stage. The wolves that chase various characters in turn feel huge and meaningful, but they are “acted” by oversized, clearly represational puppets. The children in the audience got the effect, but I saw no crawling into laps or bursting into tears. You might want to reach out a comforting arm during the final, climactic scene at the castle, however.
This is a bigger experience than hitting Play on a screen, and it takes longer, too: We were out of the theatre about two-and half hours after the curtain lifted. A decent-sized intermission gives plenty of time to get wiggles out and get to the restroom.
If your kids are familiar with the movie, prepare them for some unexpected bonus tunes. The play has one song that was cut from the movie, and a handful more written specifically for the production. The Beast even gets some solos, which are part of what renders him a much more sympathetic character.
Particularly if you’re on the main floor, don’t hesitate to get a booster for your little one! The beautiful Paramount has one drawback: There’s barely a slant to the main floor seats, so visibility can be tricky – and no one should miss a moment of this performance!
If you go…
When: There are just five shows total, the weekend of December 11–13, so you’ll need to get on it! Sunday’s 1 p.m. matinee as an ASL/AVIA-interpreted performance, and the 6:30 p.m. performance is open captioned.
Where: Paramount Theatre, downtown Seattle.
Tickets: Available online at stgpresents.org or by calling (877) STG-4TIX, or in person at the Paramount box office and select Ticketmaster locations.