Is “Beauty and the Beast” dated? A little bit, if only when pitted against contemporary ethics. As the original, animated version of the film unspooled at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night in a combination of screening and all-star live musical performance, it was clear that a few of the moral lessons imparted in 1991 seem slightly out of step with the morays of 2018.
The concept of captivity as a breeding ground for romance seems ripe for a #BelleToo response. And however eagerly we await the beast’s screen redemption, surely all the psychological think-pieces of the last few years have disabused us of believing clinical narcissism is even remotely a curable condition. As for the idea that the west wing is the most treacherous place a person could venture… well, okay, that one still holds.
But the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken could sell us on anything, and after their “you’ll believe a plant can jive” introduction with “Little Shop of Horrors” and revivification of an entire artform with “Little Mermaid,” they went so big with “Beauty” that it still stands as just about anyone’s conception of what an animated song score should be. It got the adoring tribute it deserved Friday in the first of two Bowl shows that had Zooey Deschanel, Taye Diggs, Rebel Wilson, Kelsey Grammer and Jane Krakowski giving flesh to the toons, and tunes, between 2D dialogue-and-action scenes that had a full orchestra working full-time.
If there’s anything that’s not going to date in the slightest, it’s Ashman/Menken’s take on love in first bloom, fairy-tale or otherwise — best summed up in a couple of ridiculously simple but classic lines: “There may be something there that wasn’t there before” and, of course, “Strange, and a bit alarming,” a lyric that can apply about equally to interspecies dating or, really, any first crush.
Living up to her PG-13 reputation, Wilson introduced a previously unheard bit of dialogue to the song “Gaston” that may or may not have been scripted for the occasion. Cross-dressing in a suit and poufy brunette wig as Gaston’s foppish sidekick, LeFou (who was still ambiguously gay at most in the 2017 live-action movie remake), Wilson explained why Belle would surely have to chill with the villain, asking: “What’s her other option, bestiality?” It’d be interesting to learn whether Disney signed off on that ad lib — but finally, in an official version, someone has addressed the hairy elephant in the room.
Wilson counts as enjoyable stunt casting, if no one was about to rate her vocal chops against anyone else’s on the stage. The producers had enough faith that these two would be the ones a Bowl audience would most want to see up-close that they gave them a separate perch halfway up in the audience, so that they could perform their parts of the final big number, “The Mob Song,” apart from the rest of the rabble to the back of the Bowl. There’s been some LeFou/Gaston fan fiction, so let’s see if we get any Rebel Wilson/Taye Diggs fanfic out of this production.
Most of the rest of the casting was more on the nose. For Lumiere, you could hardly find anyone who combines buttoned-up and boisterous — and with an agreeably haughty accent — better than Grammer. Krakowski makes for a slightly slinkier Mrs. Potts than Angela Lansbury might have had us imagining, but she resisted any temptation to go all “Nine” on us in the role, only running her hands down the sides of her white dress once. Ending her rendition of the title song with the number’s traditional spoken-word asides to young Chip, Krakowski’s British accent was endearingly maternal enough that you wished the show could find a way to have the actors do all the dialogue as well as singing, technically challenging as that synch might be.
As Belle, Deschanel did not have as big a stage presence or booming a voice as Sara Bareilles did when she played Ariel in a similar Bowl production of “Little Mermaid” two summers ago, but wide-eyed winsomeness goes a long way when the part is as small as this one actually is. When Deschanel stepped out onto the semicircular wall that separates the Bowl’s “pool circle” seats from the garden boxes to sing “Belle (Reprise)” not too long into the first act, anyone who knows the score knew this was practically a curtain call for the leading lady, since the character only participates in one other song later on.
But that’s one of several peculiarities that you don’t really think about when you’re watching the Disney movie, but have to think about when transferred to a live medium. (This was the case with “Little Mermaid,” too, where the heroine also gets a big, introductory quest number and not much else to sing.) Inherent limitations to the original film that a stage producer has to deal with: There are just six songs in the whole movie (not counting reprises); the Beast only sings four lines in the film; there’s no 11:00 number, etc.
Director Richard Kraft has made a lot of canny calls. A film-scoring agent turned director, he brings a deep knowledge and love of Disneyana to some of the tiny staging touches as well as major creative decisions. He made especially great choices in bringing additional songs to incorporate to flesh out the show from its cinematic origins.
Neither of the two added numbers was as musically strong as the six original Ashman/Menken film tunes, but both were nonetheless standouts, for different reasons. An unbilled Marissa Jaret Winokur, of Tony-winning “Hairspray” fame, appeared after intermission to play the castle’s warbling wardrobe in “Human Again,” a song that was cut from the ’91 film during production but fully animated and added for the 2002 DVD (as well as the Broadway version). And while the previously heard version was more of an ensemble number, Kraft went back and found some unused lyrics from Menken’s original 11-verse draft to make it an essentially solo showcase for one particular piece of furniture. Winokur, in her best diva mode, had a great introduction for the number: “I never dreamed my return to the Hollywood Bowl would be as wardrobe!”
The other added number had an even more unexpected payoff. “Evermore” was written by Menken and Tim Rice for last year’s live-action movie remake, as a big ballad that would give the beast an entire tune to sing. The fact that it didn’t get a best song Oscar nomination belied the belief of many viewers felt it came off as filler in the film. But something transformative happened in handing this song over to the least known member of the Bowl cast, Anthony Edwards, an African-American singer alternately known for being a “Voice” contestant and a handful of Christian records. However much the song didn’t quite come off on screen being sung by an animated mongrel with an angry baritone, it very much worked sung in a higher register by a powerhouse belter whose emotions weren’t masked behind computer generated whiskers. Least of billing, Edwards was the star of the night as far as much of the audience was concerned, and the kind of surprise happy ending you hope for in a production where other climaxes are preordained. Menken had to feel pleased, if not vindicated, for “Evermore’s” own happily-ever-after.
In lieu of anyone trying to fill in for Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson for a duet version at the close, Menken himself came out to perform the song on piano, as a sweetly understated climax. That was the last of several pleasing guest spots that took place outside the context of the screening itself, including an introductory medley by D-Cappella, a violin-and-cello pairing by flashy teen prodigies Sandy Cameron and Tina Guo to come out of intermission, and best of all, a performance of “Flight of the Bumblebee” by 16-year-old pianist Emily Bear to accompany the showing of a 1948 Disney short, “Bumble Boogie.”
Other winning touches included themed lighting of the interior of the Bowl shell — when the beast lit a fire, the dome flickered pink and red — and semi-animated projections onto the entire proscenium that smartly but unobtrusively made the screening feel like more of a widescreen experience. Kraft’s Disney love reached peak status when he brought an actual whistler out to recreate the sound of Mickey’s cheerful blowing during the bit of “Steamboat Willie” that accompanies the Disney Animation Studios title card — the most delightfully silly moment in a silly-symphony kind of night.