When the 1992 Walt Disney Studio film Beauty and the Beast premiered, critics had an ironic description for it. They called it the best Broadway musical of the year. The only animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it was infused with theatricality in the good sense of that word, and the score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman indeed rivaled the best in musical theatre. The property thus seemed preordained to land on Broadway, which it did in 1994 and where it continues still. Menken and Tim Rice added several charming new songs, and I found that original production immensely satisfying.
The problem with this outdoor staging isn't so much that it looks greatly scaled down, which one might expect. The sublime score and Linda Woolverton's absorbing book don't fully depend on glittery stagecraft to make this powerful mythical story resonate. What's missing in this mounting are first-rate choreography, consistently capable performances, and smooth direction. The joys in director-choreographer David Brannen's staging are scarce. The show's big showstopper, "Be Our Guest," fizzles rather than sizzles, due to repetitious, unimaginative movements and a claustrophobic effect--drawbacks that apply to most of the production numbers. The climactic scene, in which the townspeople storm the Beast's castle, is a total washout--too dimly lit, unfocused, and awkward.
Yet the biggest disappointment is in the uneven performances. The only characterizations that surmount the general mediocrity are Randall Dodge's hilarious take on blowhard ladies' man Gaston and Omri Schein's skillful slapstick pratfalls as Gaston's inept henchman Lefou. Robert Townsend misses the fierceness of the Beast, further hampered by a laughable, apparently recorded growl that sounds like a loud burp. This plays havoc with the crucial dramatic arc wherein this frightening animal is supposed to turn into a pussycat. Furthermore, Townsend's stiff portrayal gives his leading lady (silky-voiced Jennifer Shelton) nothing to which she can react. Another misfired characterization comes from the lackluster Antonio "T.J." Johnson, as Belle's mad-inventor father. The Grimm Brothers' "tale as old as time" could use a huge dose of Geritol in this clumsy, passionless rendition.