Theatre review: Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’
Opening this weekend in Mumbai, the musical grapples for a soul, but is still a solid theatrical outing
This week, a distinctive manifestation of Disney soft power has hit Indian shores. A true-blue musical performed live on stage, Beauty and the Beast, is an adaptation of the 1991 animated classic, which in turn took off from the centuries-old fairy tale. Ever since it opened in 1994 at Broadway, where it ran for 13 years, it has been performed in more than 28 countries. This first-ever Indian installment, directed by Vikranth Pawar, features local talent performing to Alan Menken’s opulent Oscar-winning score. Flagging off the proceedings are a charmingly bungling duo, Lumière (Nicholas Brown) and Gosworth (Bugs Bhargava)—royal flunkies cursed to live out their days as a candelabra and a clock respectively. They emphatically announce that there would be none of that lip-synching Indian entertainers are so partial towards. However, the overture plays out sans live musicians, with the pit commandeered to accommodate plush swivel seats that come at Rs.5,000 a pop, but offers the best views of a panoramic production design.
Indeed, sprawled out in an extensive semi-circle on a custom-built stage, is a veritable village where we’re introduced to the irrepressible Belle (Meher Mistry), her scatter-brained father, Maurice (Anil Ramani), and her Neanderthal suitor, Gaston (Hitesh Malukani). The mise en scène is not of the facile pop-out variety, and its hand-crafted dimensions are populated well by the troupe filling in as denizens of such a hamlet. It would appear that there is nothing more pleasant to the ears than the hubbub of buoyant supporting players performing their hearts out, with gasps and whistles, the occasional stabs at coveted interludes, and a physical commitment that is clearly visible.
Later, the ramparts of the enchanted castle, where Belle is imprisoned by the Beast, gives way to intricate gothic interiors with the right mix of grandeur and foreboding. Where digital projections are used, the effect is less satisfactory. However, just how well the elements of stagecraft come together in this competent Indian staging, is evinced during the show-stopping production number, Be Our Guest, in which the pantry comes alive for a hungry Belle, on her first night at the castle. Scores of dancers fitted out in tastefully saucy Gavin Miguel creations become pirouetting forks and spoons, and sashaying dishes, and take Belle on a glitch-free adventure-park ride that is fantastically lit. Pawar is armed with his experience in stage spectaculars like Zangoora and Jhumroo, but the tackiness inherent to those shows is never on display here.
Ultimately though, the show’s success boils down to the principal performers. Mistry radiates an aura that reaches out even to the more far-flung seats. You wouldn’t think of her Belle as possessing of the feistiness of the contemporary Disney heroine, but even in the old-fashioned winsomeness there is a spunk embodied well by Mistry’s self-possessed charm. An odd-ball for the times, distinct from the gaggle of girls who swarm around Gaston or the hyper-feminized women of the household, she is never a sacrificial lamb, and doesn’t carry the burden of redemption that will mark the Beast’s journey.
The opening numbers are a good measure of Mistry’s singing talent, and she is possibly the only performer acting in her own voice, finding a sweet spot between camp over-enunciation (that the others must rely on heavily for colloquial authenticity) and regular speech. When performing in a plaintive register, especially in the scenes built around the numbers, Home and A Change in Me, that mark points of despair in her life, her work is more unsteady, though never to a fault.
The standout supporting turns are Brown and Bhargava, who give us several laugh-out moments, Pooja Pant as Mrs Potts, who immerses herself so feelingly into the chart-busting title track, and Malukani who operates well within the parameters of a calibrated vaudevillian baddie, even if, on virtue of being only a rebuffed suitor, he can never really be larger-than-life. The show’s true revelation is Edwin Joseph as the Beast. Although encumbered by an upholstered frame that threatens to rob him of his regal sweep, Joseph pitches in a strong vocal performance full of tremendous nuances, rife with torment and mortification on one hand, and the almost comic tenderness of a hesitant lover on the other.
There may be some woe-begone action sequences, and perhaps a sub-plot too many, but we leave with a sense of a solid theatrical outing. Much may have been inherited from the original, but there is an incandescence that is entirely this production’s own, even if it is still grappling for a soul. Mistry and Joseph, both excellent finds, must navigate that journey together and release that bounty of emotions that make a stage musical truly irresistible.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will run at the Dome at NSCI, Worli, from 23 October till 1 November. Tickets are available online at bookmyshow.com, and priced at Rs.5,000, 4,000, 3,000, 2,000 and 1000.
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