Review: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Young People’s Theatre)

Photo of Beauty and the BeastYPT’s Beauty and the Beast is a hit with kids but misses the mark with some adults, on stage in Toronto

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to go to the theatre and let yourself be a kid. Attending Young People’s Theatre‘s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast playing at the Young People’s Theatre mainstage was a chance to revisit enchanted castles, fun music, and a little bit of romance.

Of course, I know when I sat down that its an ambitious project. Think about it: how many kids in that audience were familiar with the Disney movie? Live-action or animated, if you put on a Disney show it should do one of two things: either embrace its roots or deliver something unexpected.

I’m still not sure if I am sad or offended that director Allen MacInnis’s vision felt, to me, mostly forgettable, incredibly slow, and with only brief moments of what I considered true fun.

The story remains virtually unchanged from other versions: Belle (Celine Tsai) is a woman unhappy with her provincial life where she is endlessly pursued by town strongman and bully Gaston (Aaron Ferguson). When her father Maurice (Neil Foster) is wrongly imprisoned for trespassing by the Beast (Stewart Adam McKensy) in the woods, Belle trades herself for his freedom. But there is more to the Beast and his story than meets the eye.

Look, I’m going to sound cynical for a moment but irrespective of your opinions on Disney movies, at least the animated film has a really decent pace, as does the Broadway musical, clocking in at two and a half hours.

This production is less than an hour and a half and it felt much longer because it was, for me, so slow.

I don’t even know why either.

Belle’s lament at being the Beast’s prisoner is a perfect example. Tsai clearly gives an emotional performance but standing in the midst of a large, virtually empty set, her performance becomes strangely hollow.

Maybe the set is meant to imply isolation; instead I feel like the energy is being leached from Tsai’s performance because she’s so far away. And it’s a recurring problem. Every time the actors are forced away from the audience, their energy goes with them.

Contrast that with the highlight of the evening, the song “Be Our Guest”. Iconic and fun, it gets everyone in the audience cheering at the end. Led by the inimitable and hilarious Damien Atkins as Lumiere, suddenly the whole stage becomes alive. There are some jazz-hands, a little bit of tango, some tap dancing by Andrew Prashad’s Cogsworth, it’s great.

And let me just honestly say that Atkins and Prashad are hilarious. Those two on their own are funny but when they bicker, it’s golden.

I felt like a kid in that moment, watching them finally embracing the wonder of Beauty and the Beast. That’s what’s so amazing about the Disney version specifically: the music demands commitment, it wants a cast to let loose. Unsurprising, Gaston’s song delivers another moment of high, exciting energy. Again, they seem to reach out beyond the stage, really performing something fun and letting us in on their joke.

It’s like they’re suddenly unrestrained in these specific pieces. I don’t know how else to describe it.

The only exception I could see with the staging difficulties lies in McKensy as the Beast.

When he sings “If I Can’t Love Her”, alone on the stage, standing close to the enchanted rose, you melt just a little inside. There’s something particularly powerful there and I think it’s where MacInnis’s vision for this version of Beauty and the Beast comes through.

He wants to explore “the struggle humans have to be authentic” and McKensy’s Beast picks apart the character just enough to be more than a copy of the original. The rest of the show, doesn’t really do anything with that theme.

Personally, I’d argue, it doesn’t really do anything. I tried to approach this production like a kid—and I want to point out the kids in the audience still seemed entertained—ready to be swept away. I wasn’t.

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Photo of Stewart Adam McKensy, Andrew Prashad, Emma Rudy and Celine Tsai by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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