Review by Tim Garratt
In 1994, Disney made its first foray into musical theatre, mounting a stage adaptation of one of its most recent and revered films. Only a few years earlier, Beauty and the Beast had become a box office smash, earning $403 million at the box office worldwide and becoming the third highest grossing film of 1991. It was a hit with audiences and critics, too, having the distinction of being the first animated feature film ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
On stage, Beauty and the Beast has similarly garnered acclaim around the world; its original Broadway run spanned more than 13 years and it remains one of the 10 longest-running shows on Broadway. The show has since been performed in 37 countries. The one and only previous Australian production opened in Melbourne in 1995 and was this reviewer’s introduction to musical theatre.
Close to 30 years since that last local outing, Beauty and the Beast has returned to Australia, opening last night at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. Members of the original Broadway creative team have devised an updated production, led by director and choreographer Matt West. The new production features a cast of 34, a behind-the-scenes crew of 77 (including its musicians), 300 costumes, and 80 tonnes of scenery and automation. To bring the show to life in Sydney, 23 eight tonne trucks were required to transport the set to the Capitol Theatre, where load-in took a team of 70 over 15,000 people hours. It is, without doubt, one of the most ambitious and expensive undertakings in musical theatre in this city.
In fact, the visual impact of the production design on stage may be even more impressive than those statistics. Stanley A. Meyer’s sets bring the fairytale world to life with exceptional attention to detail. Whether it’s the village, the grim interiors of the dark castle, or the extraordinarily luminous and vibrant Busby Berkeley-inspired dinner scene, it’s impossible to imagine the animated film being translated for the stage with more wow factor. Of course, the gorgeous costumes by Ann Hould-Ward and Natasha Katz’s dynamic lights deserve just as much commendation for the fairytale world successfully conjured here.
But while the spectacle is immense and the design details extravagant, the story (by book writer Linda Woolverton), and the music (by Alan Menken, with lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and Tim Rice) remain the core elements that make Beauty and the Beast such a stunning piece of live theatre. It’s the story of a smart and strong-willed young woman, Belle (Shubshri Kandiah), who finds herself imprisoned in the castle of a Beast (Brendan Xavier), once a human prince who has been transformed by an enchantress into his current form. Only if he learns to love another and be loved in return will the spell be broken, and his humanity restored.
Defined by timeless messages about looking beyond appearance, the importance of kindness, love and empathy, and the dangers of becoming convinced of your own self-importance, Beauty and the Beast continues to be an immensely meaningful work for contemporary audiences. In this production, it is paired with arguably one of Disney’s strongest musical scores; it’s a score abundant in soaring melodies, richly underscoring moments of drama and sheer entertainment, and it keeps you transfixed in this fantasy world from start to finish. Fortunately for Sydney audiences, it’s performed by a stellar 11-piece orchestra (led by Luke Hunter), moving and delighting the audience.
This production is also yet another indicator of the remarkable talent pool in Australia that continues to grow. Taking on the title role in Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella last year, Kandiah showed that Belle would likely fit her as perfectly as the glass slipper. And, truly, on opening night, she is every bit the Disney princess for which you would hope. Kandiah’s sweet soprano glides through each song, her tone so warm and her delivery of the lyrics so sincere. One important update to the new production has been to make Belle stronger and more empowered, and her agency is so palpable in Kandiah’s portrayal. Never for a second is there any doubt that this is a person who makes things happen for herself and fully appreciates her ability to do so.
Xavier, meanwhile, makes a strong debut as a mainstage principal in the role of the cursed man with a critical life lesson to learn. He adeptly portrays a character defined by uncontrollable anger who is initially profoundly selfish, and who believably transforms into one who knows how to love. Vocally, he’s on point, lending his powerful tenor to the role, but also delivering in numbers requiring more sensitivity and nuance. This is a difficult part to play, but Xavier succeeds in not overreaching with the darkness of the character.
On opening night, Jackson Head played the role of the misogynistic egomaniacal Gaston, ultimately the real bad guy of Beauty and the Beast. He has great comedic chops and an enviable baritone, which is an asset particularly on ‘Gaston’, one of the production’s funniest and most entertaining numbers.
Across the board, this cast is strong. The key staff of the castle – Rohan Browne as Lumiere, Gareth Jacobs as Cogsworth, Jayde Westaby as Mrs Potts, Hayley Martin as Babette and Alana Tranter as Madame – are all excellent in their roles, serving up skilled and appealing takes on these larger than life characters, whose fortunes all depend on the cursed Beast.
The chorus is terrific and some of the best sequences of the show are when they are in full vocal flight. The execution of West’s choreography is likewise a highlight, featuring group tap, contemporary high kicks and acrobatics.
It’s taken a long time for Beauty and the Beast to return to Sydney, but the wait has been well worth it. This is a wonderful production for audiences of all ages; it’s a feast for the senses that wins you over with its utter beauty. Don’t miss this chance to see Beauty and the Beast in Sydney – it might be 30 years until your next opportunity!
Tickets to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast are on sale now for performances through to 5 November 2023, exclusively through Ticketmaster.