Review: Cartoon comes to life in 'Beauty and the Beast'

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Jan 10 2015 02:41 PM | Updated as of Jan 12 2015 08:46 PM

A scene from the musical. Photo from the official Facebook page of “Beauty and the Beast.”

MANILA – “Beauty and the Beast” was off to a rosy start at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) for its gala performance in Manila on Friday night.

Theatergoers, who gave the international cast a warm Philippine welcome with a prolonged standing ovation, were each given a red rose as they filed out of the CCP. Many also posed for photographs with a hologram of a rose encased in glass courtesy of major sponsor Globe Business, whose corporate clients were among those who packed the Main Theater for the kick off performance of the musical’s limited Manila run, which is part of a worldwide tour to mark the musical's 20th anniversary since debuting on Broadway in 1994.

To those who are unfamiliar with Disney’s 1991 blockbuster movie, the rose is an important symbol in the story, as the Beast must break the spell before the flower loses its last petal. The musical opens with the backstory told via voiceover and behind a scrim, showing how a spell has transformed a selfish prince into a beast. That brisk prologue also primes the audiences to what they can expect from this two-and-a-half hour musical: plenty of stage magic. In seconds, a beggar woman transforms into a towering enchantress, while the prince becomes a beast with horns, lots of hair and giant incisors.

From there, “Beauty and the Beast,” which has been previously staged in Manila by Atlantis Productions with KC Concepcion as Belle and Jett Pangan as the Beast, proceeds to faithfully recreate the acclaimed movie live onstage with additional scenes and songs to further endear the two titular characters to the audience.

Notably, the Beast gets two solos to show his inner turmoil – “How Long Must This Go On?” and “If I Can’t Love Her” – which are somehow reminiscent of “The Phantom of the Opera,” while Belle sings “A Change In Me,” to signal a break in their relationship after the Beast rescues her from the wolves.

These numbers provide the actors with additional songs to showcase their wondrous voices. Hilary Baiberger as Belle sings with such clarity with pure tones and seemingly effortless power, while Darick Pead as the Beast was able to elicit empathy for his character despite being buried in all that fur.

“Beauty and the Beast” marked Disney’s initial foray to Broadway before it scored an artistic breakthrough with the stage puppetry of “The Lion King.” Perhaps this explains why “Beauty and the Beast” really feels like a cartoon movie brought to life.

Consider Gaston, who is played by the audience-favorite Alan Dietlein as a living cartoon character, much like the ones who perform in Disney’s theme parks. When he bullies his sidekick Lefou (Jordan Aragon), it comes complete with exaggerated sound effects as the diminutive actor falls or flips on stage like a spineless acrobat.

But at the same time it is this cartoon feel that makes “Beauty and the Beast” such an entertaining spectacle. Like the fireworks at Disneyland, it just leaves you awed. In the case of the show-stopping number “Be Our Guest,” how can anyone not be swept up by the near non-stop parade of outlandish costumes and busy backdrops? Led by the nimble Hassan Nazari-Robati as the amorous candlestick Lumiere, the choreography harks back to the old-school Busby Berkely production numbers. The plates resemble the fan dancers, while the ending is a nod to the finale of “The Chorus Line” but with the popping of giant Champagne bottles.

A scene from the musical. Photo from the official Facebook page of “Beauty and the Beast.”

(As if that wasn’t enough, composer Alan Menken brought back a song that was cut from the movie. “Human Again,” sung by Lumiere and the rest of the household gang as they express their hope that the spell would soon be broken, has the same energy and verve.)

Other scenes to watch out for: The attack of the wolves was creatively done with puppets, and the choreography between the Beast and Gaston was probably the most effective fight scene I’ve seen onstage.

But even avid fans of the film would definitely be wowed by how the Beast’s transformation was staged. First the wounded Beast levitates, then spins around and transforms back into a prince while in mid-air.

Despite such display of technical proficiency, one thing going for “Beauty and the Beast” is really the music of Menken. The title song was again a faithful recreation of the movie onstage and sung simply and effortlessly by Emily Mattheson as Mrs. Potts. But the waltz between the unlikely couple was the most captivating stage moment since the King of Siam danced with Anna.

Perhaps this is why, after 20 years, “Beauty and the Beast,” which won only one Tony Award for costumes, continues to entertain audiences around the world. The production may have that professional polish and performed with precision that borders on the mechanical but one can’t deny that it is sprinkled with that brand of Disney magic that never grows old and which brings out that awestruck kid in every one of us.

“Beauty and the Beast” runs until January 25 at the CCP.