IT should come as no surprise that when the Disney people decided to get into the Broadway theatrical arena, they should do so in a big way. Even in previews, the merchandizing blitzkrieg for their new ``Beauty and the Beast'' was in full swing. Caps, shirts, cast albums: Every type of souvenir was being hawked in the lobby of the legendary Palace Theatre.
The company's confidence in its marketing savvy is by no means misplaced. ``Beauty and the Beast'' is going to be a huge hit and will be playing the Palace, and theaters around the world, for a long, long time to come. It will undoubtedly become a required stopping point for families visiting New York.
The first question that comes to mind is: Have they put the animated classic onstage? In every superficial way, they have. It's all here: the by-now-classic Menken-Ashman score; the characters (Belle, the Beast, Gaston) that children have come to love; the anthropomorphic candelabras and teapots; and the lavish settings. In terms of sheer physical production (this is the most expensive show ever mounted on Broadway), they have done a spectacular job of recreating the cinematic experience onstage.
What they haven't done, and what was probably impossible to do, is recreate the magic. What makes animation special is the sheer fluidity, the joyfully giddy kineticism that cartoon characters can display. As soon as you reproduce these images in reality, whether on ice or on a Broadway stage, they lose their grace, they become clunky. What was beautiful and enchanting becomes prosaic.
That said, one can't fault the show for any of its technical elements. The sets (by Stan Meyer), costumes (Ann Hould-Ward), lighting (Natasha Katz) are beyond state-of-the-art, and often breathtaking. If some of director Rob Roth's staged sequences don't work, such as the Beast's fight with the wolves terrifying Belle, others, such as the Beast's transformation back into human form, contain some of the most stunning illusions seen on Broadway since Doug Henning performed here.
What also works is the glorious score. The two best numbers from the film, the wickedly funny ``Gaston'' and the dizzy, frenetic, and joyful ``Be My Guest,'' work their magic again. Burke Moses's witty performance as Gaston captures the qualities of the original character to the degree that, even though he is one of the few performers onstage not wearing elaborate costumes or prosthetics, he is the one who seems most like a cartoon.
All the stops have been pulled out for ``Be My Guest,'' and the song stops the show as much as it stopped the film. If it is a bit too dependent on outrageous costumes and fireworks, it is the kind of spectacular production number that hasn't been staged on Broadway since the days of Ziegfeld and Billy Rose.
The Broadway score also features a charming song by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman that was cut from the film, called ``Being Human,'' and several bland new songs from Menken and Tim Rice, including ``Me,'' a virtual copy of ``Gaston,'' and ``If I Can't Love Her,'' a love ballad sung by the Beast that, in the performance I caught, was marred by several loud off-stage disturbances. When it comes to the new material, suffice it to say that, as songwriting goes, something was lost with the death of Ashman.
Tom Bosley, television's favorite cuddly father from ``Happy Days,'' plays the part of Belle's father. To beef up the part, he has been given a new song, ``No Matter What.'' Broadway newcomer Susan Egan is a charming and full-voiced Belle, and Terrence Mann is strong as the Beast, although he could stress the menace of the character a bit more.
It's a relief at the end when Mann, who has spent a good part of his Broadway career either unrecognizable or covered in heavy makeup (in ``Cats'' and ``Les Miserables''), finally gets to display his normal handsome appearance. Gary Beach (Lumiere), Beth Fowler (Mrs. Potts), Heath Lamberts (Cogsworth), Eleanor Glockner (Madame de la Grande Bouche), and Stacey Logan (Babette) recreate their cinematic counterparts with the appropriate degree of, shall we say, animation.
The Disney people, quite rightly, have sensed the lack of family entertainment on Broadway. With this juggernaut of a show, and with the recent acquisition of the New Amsterdam Theatre on, of all places, 42nd Street, they are clearly poised to rectify the situation. It will, of course, only speed Broadway's transformation into more of a theme park than it has already become, but at least it will be a theme park to which you can take your children.