BOSTON — There is a brilliant flash of light, an explosion of smoke, and a prince turns into a beast before our very eyes. In an extravagant castle, household objects come vividly to life as a sassy broom, a diva wardrobe, a cranky clock, a cunning candlestick, a maternal teapot, and her young son (changed by theatrical tricks into a bodiless head fused into a large cup).
The production also boasts a spectacular dance of illuminated saucers, showgirls bedecked with spinning plates, and giant-size bottles spewing streams of brilliant sparkles.
Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is a smash-hit, Tony Award-winning musical that opened in Houston in December 1993 before going to Broadway, where it is still running at the Palace Theatre. Disney currently has international productions in London, Mexico City, Tokyo, and Stuttgart, Germany, and the Broadway show is in the midst of a major US tour (it's in Boston until Sept. 6, with subsequent runs in Hartford, Conn.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Tampa, Fla.; and East Lansing, Mich., extending into the new year).
The show is a fairly faithful rendering of a highly successful movie, with additional songs and dances added for Broadway appeal. For the most part, it works beautifully. Only in the fantastical "Be Our Guest" number, with its Busby Berkeley-style centerpiece, does the show's extraordinary technological magic threaten to derail the story line, which is after all what makes a show endearing and enduring.
On the other hand, the show's technical achievements - from its mammoth design scheme and numerous set changes to its fancy bag of theatrical tricks - raise the question: Is this Disney production destined for longevity, or is it merely a here-and-now phenomenon? Will it survive beyond the current slate of productions and tours in major, grandly equipped houses? Timeless tale and tuneful music aside, is it ultimately limited by its own technological encumbrances?
Because of the technical requirements, which are part of the production's basic framework, it probably can't play Podunk, and there certainly won't be any community-theater productions in the near future. "Beauty and the Beast" may be many children's introduction to the world of theater, but will it be around for their children?
In contrast, consider the tried-and-true classics of family-musical theater. "Peter Pan" and "Annie," for example, have enjoyed recent major revivals and tours. "Peter Pan" is nearly 100 years old (the first production was in 1904), and "Annie" just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
They share the same basic theme - childhood abandonment - and they revel in the resilience of youth and the promise of a better "Tomorrow."
They also share a history of repeated productions at almost every level, from Broadway to the humblest of children's theaters - and they largely use the same basic frameworks with which they were created. On almost any given day of the year, somewhere across the United States, some little girl in a red wig is singing about "A Hard-Knock Life," and another is being sprinkled with fairy dust and learning to fly.
Besides the resonant thematic context, what separates "Annie" and "Peter Pan" from the rest of the pack is the heavy involvement of children. Though all, including "Beauty and the Beast," are not strictly children's shows but theater intended for the whole family, "Annie" and "Peter Pan" offer a chance for children to act and for other children to watch. And for young viewers, that is one of the most enticing entrees into the theater. "Here I am," say the youngsters onstage in their makeup and costumes. "That could be me," say the kids in the audience, dreaming of possibility.
While "Beauty and the Beast" (as well as the newer Disney show "The Lion King") may provide lasting memories of opulence and spectacular theatrical magic, that flash and dazzle also can be a bit distancing. It's almost too much and too removed from reality to make a lasting connection.
Conversely, the old stalwarts provide stories with heart, which are fairly simply presented to draw the audience in and keep them involved. Even "Annie," with its slightly convoluted plot and silly digressions, has a core of timeless appeal. What makes a classic is an ability to nourish and inspire generation after generation. The ability of "Beauty and the Beast" to do this may be clouded by its razzle-dazzle special effects.
There's room for both, of course - the lavish fantasy and the smaller, more accessible tales. But the fear is that writers and producers, in their attempts to create bigger, more awe-inspiring mega-spectacles of family entertainment, will neglect the more intimate forms, the simple abiding stories with which kids (of all ages) can identify.
We need those works that not only spark our imaginations but our hearts, that tap into childhood hopes, fears, and possibilities, that send audiences out of the theater not so much overwhelmed as moved.