Monday, January 3, 2011

Theater feature: 'Beauty' team lightens, rethinks Broadway favorite

Justin Glaser and Liz Shivener in Beauty and the Beast.
(Photo by Peter Coombs)

By Hap Erstein

On the second day of‭ ‬2011,‭ ‬Disney’s‭ ‬The Lion King surpassed‭ ‬Beauty and the Beast to become the seventh longest-running show ever on Broadway.

That takes the media conglomerate’s first venture in the high-risk world of New York commercial theater down a peg,‭ ‬but when you run‭ ‬5,461‭ ‬performances‭ ‬--‭ ‬more than‭ ‬13‭ ‬years‭ ‬--‭ ‬you can console yourselves that you created a much-beloved success.

Still,‭ ‬when it came time to remount the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical and send it out again on tour,‭ ‬original director Robert Jess Roth and original choreographer Matt West felt the need to reconceive and redesign the show.‭ ‬So call the production, which kicks off the new year at the Kravis Center on Tuesday for a weeklong run‭, ‬Beauty and the Beast‭ ‬2.0.

Twenty years ago,‭ ‬Roth and West had been creating‭ ‬30-minute shows for the Disneyland theme park and trying to persuade chef executive Michael Eisner to authorize an assault on Broadway.‭ ‬Eisner kept turning them down,‭ ‬until the‭ ‬1991‭ ‬animated feature of‭ ‬Beauty and the Beast‭ ‬--‭ ‬the fable of a spunky bookworm and the furry ogre who holds her captive and eventually wins her heart‭ ‬--‭ ‬kept being compared in structure and style to a Broadway show

That motivated Eisner to make the gamble,‭ ‬asking Roth and West how they would adapt‭ ‬Beauty and the Beast for the stage.

‭“‬So we created a two-hour version of the show,‭ ‬with songs to be filled in later,‭” ‬explains Roth.‭ “‬We’d say,‭ ‘‬The song’s title is this,‭ ‬and this is what it does in the show.‭’ ‬And we made a presentation to the board of directors in Aspen,‭ ‬Colorado,‭” ‬fully expecting to be turned down.

‭“‬Instead,‭ ‬Michael said,‭ ‘‬Wow,‭ ‬great.‭ ‬When does it open‭?’ ‬And I said,‭ ‘‬What‭?’ ‬He said,‭ ‘‬Yeah,‭ ‬we’re going to do it,‭’ ‬and eighteen months later we were on Broadway.‭”

Eisner bet an estimated‭ ‬$12‭ ‬million on a couple of Broadway novices.‭ “‬I had danced on Broadway,‭ ‬but I had never really developed a show,‭” ‬concedes West.‭ “‬I’d been in them,‭ ‬but I’d never been involved in one from the very beginning.‭”

Foolhardy‭? ‬Perhaps,‭ ‬but it paid off,‭ ‬grossing more than‭ ‬$1.4‭ ‬billion worldwide and kick-starting a theatrical pipeline that includes such shows as‭ ‬The Lion King,‭ ‬Aida‭ ‬and‭ ‬Mary Poppins.

A paranoid Broadway community was wary of,‭ ‬and sometimes openly hostile to,‭ ‬this corporate invasion of its turf.‭ “‬We couldn’t pay attention to any of that,‭” ‬says Roth.‭ “‬We just had to make the best show we could and hope it would be accepted by the audience,‭ ‬which is what happened.‭”

Now,‭ ‬three years after it closed on Broadway,‭ ‬the show has gone through a complete makeover.‭ “‬We were interesting in finding out what happens if we reinvent the show and how far can we go,‭” ‬says Roth.

‭“‬We’ve reinvented it,‭ ‬even though it wasn’t broken.‭ ‬I went to all the writers and all the designers and I said,‭ ‘‬Hey,‭ ‬let’s brainstorm.‭ ‬What if‭ …?’

“Well,‭ ‬we’ve grown as artists,‭” ‬says West.‭ “‬When you grow and you develop your art and your craft,‭ ‬and you’ve watched it for those‭ ‬17‭ ‬years,‭ ‬you do feel the urge to rethink it.‭”

Roth describes the new production as having‭ “‬a lightness and a fluidity,‭ ‬where the original show was a little heavier-feeling.‭” ‬The original show was cluttered with scenery to approximate the look of the film,‭ ‬whereas this one is more spare,‭ ‬which allows more room for movement and dance.

Totally redesigned are the yapping wolves of the forest,‭ ‬which were two-dimensional and hardly menacing.‭ “‬So we brought in Basil Twist,‭ ‬a genius puppeteer who worked on‭ ‘‬The Addams Family,‭’ ‬and he made beautiful wolves,‭” ‬reports Roth.‭ “‬To say the other ones weren’t everything they could be is an understatement.‭”

In short,‭ ‬the aim is to retain the enchantment of the original Broadway‭ ‬Beauty and the Beast and to redo whatever was a bit enchantment-challenged.‭ “‬What an unbelievable opportunity this has been,‭ ‬that so few people ever get,‭” ‬says Roth.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST,‭ ‬Kravis Center for the Performing Arts,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬9.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25‭ ‬and up.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬832-SHOW‭ (‬7469‭)‬.‭

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