Lest we forget, “Beauty and the Beast” is the show that started it all. The adaptation of the 1991 animated film premiered on Broadway in 1994, marking Disney’s first foray into the world of musical theater. The show — with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton — was a smash hit, running for 13 years and paving for the way for more theatrical successes, including “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Aladdin.”
The current touring production of “Beauty and the Beast,” playing at the Saenger Theatre though Jan. 3, lacks some of the polish and panache that made the musical a classic, but it proves that there’s still plenty of life left in the show, even 20 years later.
The appeal of “Beauty and the Beast” lies largely in the characters. Belle stands out among the second wave of Disney princesses as a thoughtful book lover, a young girl more interested in adventure than romance. She fends off the advances of the oafish, self-centered Gaston, only to fall into the clutches of Beast, a young prince transformed by a spell into a big, ugly brute living in a secluded castle full of servants who, under the same spell, are gradually morphing into household objects. The only thing that can break the spell, of course, is true love.
While the story centers on Belle and Beast, in this production, it’s Gaston who steals the show, particularly in the first act. As Gaston, the tall, strapping Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek prances and preens, flexing his muscles, if not his wits. Smith-Kotlarek strikes the perfect balance between Gaston’s harmless vanity and the glowering offensiveness that results from Belle’s rejection.
Some of the show’s most rousing musical numbers revolve around Gaston, the three “Silly Girls” competing for his attention (Jeanette Palmer, Colleen Roberts, and Sarah Shelton), and the chorus of townspeople, all of whom deem Gaston a man among men, while dismissing Belle as a “funny girl.”
When the show transitions to the story of Belle and the Beast, some of that enthusiasm wears off. As Belle, Brooke Quintana hits all the right notes, but without quite capturing the drama of the princess’s plight. Sam Hartley, as Beast, alternates between a growling menace and a comic, Cowardly Lion-like pussycat. Without the delicate back-and-forth that evolves from aversion to affection, the love story that anchors the show loses some its charm.
The other couple in “Beauty and the Beast,” Lumiere and Cogsworth (Ryan N. Phillips and Samuel Shurtleff), provides plenty of levity, along with the rest of the castle’s enchanted staff.
The big song-and-dance number “Be Our Guest” gets the royal treatment here. The bright, bold costumes and set design bring the castle to life, complete with a chorus line of cutlery and an ensemble of dancing dinner plates.
The less lively numbers, including the Oscar-winning song “Beauty and the Beast” performed by Mrs. Potts (Stephanie Gray) are sentimental favorites, but often lack an emotional punch.
On opening night, the beginning of the second act was marred by a nearly 10-minute interruption due to technical difficulties with the lights, but hopefully the issue won’t affect future productions.
Audiences who have grown to love the characters and songs of “Beauty and the Beast” over the years will find plenty to enjoy in this show, but newcomers may be less impressed with the sometimes lackluster production.