PROVO — For some people, it will be sacrilege. In this production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the Beast does not wear an eighteenth century blue suit to dance with Belle. Lumiere does not have a burning candle in each hand. And Chip does not wheel around the stage on a cart. In short, BYU’s Beauty and the Beast looks nothing like any other stage production of the show or the animated film it’s based on. Disney purists may scoff, but audience members who have an open mind and give the production a chance will likely have a satisfying theatrical experience.
This different look and feel to Beauty and the Beast was clearly no accident. Director George D. Nelson obviously intended to use this “tale as old as time” to create an innovative night of theatre. While staying faithful to Linda Woolverton‘s script, Nelson reinvented every aspect of the show possible, from the visual elements (none of which show more than a passing resemblance to the animated film), to characterizations, to the line delivery. The result is a grittier Beauty and the Beast (such as a more violent confrontation in the west wing of the castle) that delves deeper into the psychology of the two main characters. Yet, Nelson also mined the humor from the script, and the charm of Woolverton’s words emerges undiminished.
In general, Nelson’s concept meshed well with the source material. The only exception, though, was the anxiety from the Beast’s servants about gradually turning into objects. With an almost entirely human appearance, it is never clear why Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and the other servants are concerned. In reality, it doesn’t appear that these people are on the verge of becoming inanimate objects.
The costumes, designed by Shannon McCurdy, were the single most important visual element of the show. Dressed in McCurdy’s costumes, it looked like the the cast of La Bohème had decided to perform Beauty and the Beast on their day off. Depending on the scene, the cast was dressed in modern fashions, late nineteenth century attire, or fantastical outfits for the enchanted objects. It takes some getting used to, but by the time the first act was half over, I had accepted this unique blend of costume designs. Indeed, McCurdy’s costumes even had some strengths. For example, with the Beast’s face never obscured, it was easier to connect with him on an emotional level than in most productions.
Benjamin Sanders’s set and lighting designs are also a radical departure from the traditional designs for Beauty and the Beast. The immovable, industrial set consists of a twin pair of staircases leading to a central platform, with other smaller platforms branching off, which served as bedrooms, a dungeon, and more. The rest of the stage was bare: no backdrops, no curtain, no cyclorama, no doors, or any of the other trappings of scenery, apart from some set decorations upstage to match the Bohemian feel of the costumes. As a result, the focus of this production is on the story and the characters, which also frees the audience’s minds to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps in the scenery.
In the role of Belle, Twyla Wilson contributed to the reinvention of this classic musical. Her Belle is assertive and more realistic than what most actresses portray on stage in the role. She is almost commanding when she says, “Dance with me,” to the Beast during the song “Beauty and the Beast,” and her matter-of-fact refusal of Gaston’s marriage proposal showed Belle to be a confident, no-nonsense woman. These new insights into the character were refreshing, and I compliment Twyla Wilson for her efforts to find something new in her character. Additionally, her voice is well suited for Alan Menken‘s music and the lyrics of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, with “Home” and the rarely heard “A Change in Me” being particular treats because of Twyla Wilson’s strong tone control and emotional delivery.
As the Beast (and Twyla Wilson’s real-life husband), Johnny Wilson’s performance was touching, especially as he showed the Beast’s emotional distress during “If I Can’t Love Her.” Johnny Wilson also infused an endearing shyness into the Beast as he woos Belle in the second act, which made his despair heart-wrenching when she leaves the castle. Because Johnny Wilson did not have the animal prosthetics and costume to rely on, he was forced to show his character’s beastliness through movement and characterization. In the hands of a lesser actor, these efforts could have faltered, but the way he leaped around the set or snarled at the Beast’s servants made the animalistic nature of the character obvious.
Some supporting cast members likewise were excellent in finding innovative approaches to their characters. Devin Neilson’s Lefou was more than an obsequious toady to Gaston because of the genuine rapport that Neilson seemed to have with Cooper Campbell, who played Gaston. Neilson was also impressive in his acrobatics during “Gaston” and the fight scene in the castle. Alana Jeffery was a sweet Mrs. Potts who had authentic emotional relationships for the other servants, instead of just her son Chip (played by Tricia Zuskind). This was abundantly apparent in her concern for Cogsworth’s new winding key in his back and in her efforts to help the Beast act like a gentleman around Belle.
Even actors who didn’t re-invent their roles had excellent performances. Woody White‘s Lumiere had an impeccable French accent, and he sang and danced a captivating “Be Our Guest.” Scott Whipple constantly displayed Cogsworth’s anxiety without ever losing charm. Finally, Caleb Ratelle created a truly sinister Monsieur d’Arque, which increased the tension in the second act.
The only cast member who couldn’t win me over with their performance was Cooper Campbell as Gaston. Perhaps it was because he was dressed a little too much like a hipster, or maybe because of his terrible long blonde wig. But I nevertheless had difficulty believing Campbell as the braggart soldier archetype. Additionally, Campbell is shorter than most of his castmates, and the running gags related to this (such as performing “Me” on stilts or having LeFou carry things for him to stand on) grew tiresome.
With most of the spectacle stripped away from this production, the important components remain, including the philosophical heart of this play. Beneath the fun songs, the endearing characters, and the dance breaks, Beauty and the Beast asks some of the most important, enduring questions in history: What does it mean to be human? Can someone reclaim their lost humanity? Is redemption possible for someone who has fallen? Never has it been easier to find these questions in this big Disney musical, and I invite readers to catch this production of Beauty and the Beast to explore these themes and some unique interpretations to this beloved musical.