Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blast from the past: 'Beauty and the Beast'

Note: Since I'll be gone for some days, I thought I'd post here some of my earlier published pieces, those that came out way before I started blogging, so I could archive them in my own blog. Sorry for the rehashed posts for now--they're still good reads, I think. Here's my 2005 review of Atlantis Productions' "Beauty and the Beast," starring KC Concepcion as Belle. Due to space constraints in the paper, I've been forced lately to do omnibus reviewing--i.e, two to three plays in one article. I hope to go back soon to longer, better-argued pieces, like this one...

PDI, June 20, 2005

Perhaps the ultimate accolade for Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" was made by the powerful theater critic Frank Rich of the New York Times, who wrote in 1991, "What is the best Broadway musical comedy score of the year? Make no mistake about it, it is 'Beauty and the Beast.'"

Such high praise was all the more notable for the fact that Rich wasn't talking about the Broadway version that came a year later, but the animated film itself. That movie, with a gorgeous score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (of the Off-Broadway classic "Little Shop of Horrors") went on to become the first animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It also spawned a monster hit in the title song (sang, fittingly enough, by a Broadway legend, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts), and made superstars of talking candelabras and table clocks.

When "Beauty and the Beast" finally migrated to the stage and opened on Broadway in 1992, it grabbed 11 Tony nominations and became a huge attraction. Together with the even more triumphant staging of "The Lion King" under Julie Taymor's direction, Disney acquired the beachhead to launch a revival of much of New York's theater district with its unprecedented back-to-back film-to-stage successes.

Yet Broadway's "Disneyfication" has had its share of loud detractors, many of them small producers who feared that the Big Mouse, already a behemoth in the larger entertainment field, would crowd out the ever-shrinking Broadway market with its overwhelming savvy for hype and mass-market enticements. The larger complaint was artistic: Disney's first foray into musical theater tended to dumb down the art form, rendering it as much a factory product as a Pocahontas doll or a Hercules action figure that went with your next McDonald's Happy Meal.

Is the complaint valid? For sure, it has the whiff of snooty, condescending bellyaching by Broadway purists and demimondes long nostalgic for those bygone days when New York's thriving theater culture pretty much dictated the state of American popular arts.

But finally seeing "Beauty and the Beast" on stage, at least as locally mounted by Atlantis Productions and director Bobby Garcia at the Meralco Theater, one realizes with a sinking feeling that perhaps those old codgers were right.

"Beauty and the Beast," so exquisite a creation on film, has transmogrified into a kitschy, second-rate iteration on stage, a passport to a night of thwarted expectations and unexpected letdowns at the theater.

Ravishing heroine
But first, the question of the hour: How is KC Concepcion as Belle?

Make no mistake about it, as the sharp, spunky heroine of this tale, Concepcion is a ravishing Belle. She has charisma to spare, and in the play's second half, dressed in ballgowns and finally allowed to exhibit the sense of casual royalty that seems to be her natural bearing, she is a sight to behold.

She is also, perhaps like any newbie, not yet an actress. True, she speaks her lines clearly, forcefully. She goes through her paces with vigor and precision. She is technically in good form, and her voice can carry the score.

What she lacks at this point is character, the accumulation of minute gestures, cues, actions that would stamp her Belle as an individual, a presence, and not a creature of self-conscious notion. When she steps aside to become a spectator to the action, as in the "Be Our Guest" number, she seems to disappear and merge with the scenery.

It doesn't help that she's out of sorts as a poor man's daughter. Her guileless hauteur peeks through every time, and only when dressed to the nines does she, at long last, sparkle.

Tragically, such nuances don't apply to Calvin Millado, who plays Gaston as one of the two big miscasts of the musical. In the film, Gaston happens to be a genuine heartthrob--a churlish, boorish cad, but one whose vanity was anchored on a real, dangerous attractiveness. That element was fundamental in his mutation from towering narcissist to murderous bigot. Hugh Jackman played Gaston in the Australian production of "Beauty and the Beast," so you get the point.

Millado is tall, muscled and possessed of a big voice, but he is, shall we say, homely-looking. And he opts to play Gaston as a genial, manic buffoon without a trace of malevolence in either his singing or line readings. That makes his descent into the dark side, so to speak, a rather silly turn. And when he spits out the line, "As a specimen, yes, I'm intimidating!" you catch yourself muttering, in today's street argot, "Haller!"

The same miscasting blues afflict Jett Pangan as the Beast. We don't want to be unkind to Pangan, who has become, with sterling performances in "Dreamgirls," "Urinetown" and "Once On This Island," a genuine theater treasure hereabouts. But let's be honest. Pangan is a bit too long in the tooth to be playing a dreamboat prince opposite Concepcion, even one who gets to show his face only near the end.

Maurice, Belle's father, frantically describes the Beast as "8 feet--no, more like 10 feet tall!" Now, even with his Beast-ly mask on, Pangan remains short, skinny-legged and desperately non-threatening. Lumiere, the candelabra (Jonard Yanzon, engaging even if you couldn't place his faux French accent), stands even taller than this supposedly horrifying creature.

As usual, Pangan sings affectingly. But when he growls and bellows, he is hard put scaring anyone with his vocal exertions. Where's the reverb when you need it?

Marvelous support
With the musical's three leads all compromised one way or the other, it's left to the supporting cast to give life to the show. In fact, they run away with it. Pinky Marquez, in particular, is marvelous as Mrs. Potts, her rendition of the title song a welcome show-stopping breather from all the antic hyperactivity on stage.

Yanzon as Lumiere and Loy Martinez as Cogsworth the talking clock make a funny pair, and their shameless mugging at least gives the musical some snap. Robbie Guevarra, Chari Arespacochaga and Cathy Azanza also flex their seasoned chops, and the ensemble as a whole, brocaded to a fault in glittering costumes by Mio Infante, sounds vibrant.

Thank heavens for them, or this staging would be more disappointing than it already is.

Breezy wit
On film, with animation's paradoxical ability to whittle down stories to their primal, visceral planes yet simultaneously elevate them to a more resonant level, "Beauty and the Beast" achieves a breezy wit and a surpassing emotional potency. Its musical numbers, rather few and far between but instantly memorable, move the story forward as much as the dialogue. At about 90 minutes' running time, the compact story makes every scene count.

In the stage version, the running time has bloated to over two hours, with new songs (by Menken and Tim Rice, who took over as lyricist after Ashman's death) distending the narrative and rendering the material into a more conventional sung-through musical. Belle and the Beast now have arias of their own, while a crucial wolf attack with the Beast rescuing Belle has been conveniently tucked away in the Entr'acte.

Yet the effect of all this slavish supersizing is the opposite. The musical now sounds far thinner than it ever did. The sight of dancing plates and high-kicking cutlery, coupled with Jerry Orbach's elegant warbling as Lumiere, is a transcendent moment in the movie. Transposed to the stage, however, with the ensemble lugging around oversized dinner china on their backs, the scene looks comically tacky, Vegas-y.

Indeed, there is so much overheated huffing and puffing in this show that Concepcion's modest performance eventually seems to acquire the sheen of appealing underacting. Plucked to an unseemly high pitch, the musical stays at that labored register and never lets go.

But it's all a cartoon, you say. The twirling plates go with the territory. Well, if you want a "Beauty and the Beast" pitched like a theme-park extravaganza, this is the show for you. But if you want to know if Rich had a point, stick with the film.

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