See the Movie First: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”

Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre
Book by Linda Woolverton
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Directed by Jane Staab
Music direction by Steven Bergman
Choreography by Laurel Conrad

Feb. 2 – March 4, 2018
Feb. 25 & March 2, ASL and audio-described
Wheelock College; Boston Campus
200 The Riverway
Boston, MA 02215
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Review by Kitty Drexel

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” ― attributed to Margaret Atwood.

(Boston, MA) Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (DBatB) is beloved in all its forms. The 2017 film with Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Emma Thompson, and a vastly underutilized Audra McDonald, is a charming retelling with updates to make it more palatable for contemporary audiences. The 1994 musical adaptation of the 1991 film is not. The original Disney movie was notable for its strides in animation technology, but not for its intersectionally feminist portrayal of accepting others for their differences. Unfortunately for Wheelock Family Theatre, this problematic musical hasn’t received the update treatment. In some ways, it’s worse that the 1991 film.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a fanciful tale of Stolkholm Syndrome. Belle (Justine Moral) bravely fights the systemic ignorance of her hometown only to find herself imprisoned in an enchanted castle when her father (Robert Saoud) is captured by a Beast (Jared Troilo). Having nothing but free time, a lifetime’s worth of gender role training, and no other options, Belle finds compassion for Beast (no surname) through forced dinner dates. This compassion is misinterpreted as love by the entire freaking castle. Can the Beast coerce Belle into loving him before he’s doomed to live as a monster forever? Yes.

This Menken/Rice/Woolverton musical is not good. The cast of DBatB makes a valiant effort. Truly, they are working so hard up there, but their work is not enough to fix the simpering writing and tacky plot devices. Menken’s score is catchy but lacks musicality in this format. In addition, the near-Brechtian direction by Jane Staab breaks many of theatre’s basic rules. The audience is alienated at every angle.   

The overture sets a breakneck pace for the entire musical. Our only respite comes when lead actors choose to give us a moment to breath (and for them to develop their flimsy characters). The pace continues rapidly into the dialogue and through each musical number. That being said, the choreography by Laurel Conrad in songs such as “Gaston,” and “Be Our Guest” are terrific fun. Opening number, “Belle” has the potential to be great but the ensemble soloists aren’t given visual focus for their musical solos. The result is an audience looking this way and that to find the singer. 

Justine Moral as Belle carries the weight of the production on her shoulders. She proves the adage that a woman must be twice as good to get half as far as a man. She dances well. She sings like a dream. Without her, DBatB would flounder completely.

Additionally, the Three Silly Girls played by Joy Clark, Carly Grayson and Pier Lamia Porter were a highlight. They gave meaningful depth to their superficial roles. I wish we could learn more about these three romantically dedicated ladies. Gaston doesn’t deserve such good fly girls.

Troilo as the Beast is not believably ferocious but has good comedic timing. He’s the French fairytale equivalent of a defanged Emo Kylo Ren in boots with the fur. While the questionable costuming and dialogue are not Troilo’s fault, it is undetermined whether or not the Beast’s lack of animal behavioral traits were a choice or written into the script. A movement consultant would be useful.

It certainly does not help matters that many of the Beast’s important lines are delivered upstage. Troilo is not alone in this. For whatever reason, be it a directorial choice or other, a lot of dialogue is delivered upstage or to a wall. Wheelock prides itself on its exemplary accessibility (as it should) but a hearing impaired or deaf viewer would lose much from such staging. Please cheat out.   

In her book, Woolverton draws parallels between Gaston (Mark Linehan) and the Beast. Linehan and Troilo play their roles differently, but the characteristic similarities between the two are clear. The Beast is richer. Gaston is taller. Yet, they are two sides of the same entitled, selfish coin. The Beast could kill Belle with his bare hands but he’s afraid she might laugh at him over dinner. Gaston open carries but worries that Belle might start “thinking.”  These threats are not remotely comparable. “Love” doesn’t prevent domestic abuse. Education and self-control do.

Knowing this, parents please consider discussing consent, coercion, and healthy boundaries with your children when viewing this production. Gaston isn’t the only villain. Even when the Beast becomes “good,” he behaves ignobly. And, no one, absolutely no one gets extra credit for treating others with basic respect and dignity. These are basic tenets, not special skills begat of extraordinary goodness. Women are people. Fairytales are not real but children will not know unless you teach them.

I am usually the first person to argue that live theatre is better than a recording. An exception can be made for the musical version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. DBatB lacks Wheelock’s usual finesse. This goes triple when considering Wheelock Family Theatre’s history of extraordinarily work on shows like Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot, The Taste of Sunrise, or Pinocchio. No amount of effort from the hardworking cast makes up for the underwhelming design properties (example: the library reveal was so disappointing). Not every production is a rousing success. Not even for Wheelock.

We are asked by the ensemble, “who could ever learn to love a beast?” You can! Please consider adopting from the MSPCA.

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