‘Beauty and the Beast’ was nostalgic.
Daring sword fights, magical spells, a prince in disguise! Queensland Musical Theatre had it all and more in their retelling of the Disney classic, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, playing at the Twelfth Night Theatre in Bowen Hills. The matinee crowd saw troves of little girls dressed as Belle ready to see a real-life princess. Whether Belle was a newfound love or a nostalgic trip down memory lane, Queensland Musical Theatre gave audiences a little slice of wonder.
While the Disney musical version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ brings audiences all the classic tunes they know and love, it also introduces new songs that complement and bring a new dimension to the storyline. Originally staged on Broadway in 1994, just three years after the movie’s release, the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ musical has grossed more than $1.7 billion worldwide and played in thirteen countries and 115 cities. Whether a movie or musical, the same message rings true: beauty is not skin deep and people can change for the better.
For a musical with such large-scale songs and iconic scenes, the technical direction and design is paramount in leading the audience’s attention where it needs to be. Lighting design by Chris Cathcart and operation by Jorgia Munroe was particularly effective during ‘The Mob Song’ as audiences were drawn into the centre of the stage by targeted and muted lighting. However, there were moments where it seemed lighting cues had been triggered too early or placed in the wrong position. During ‘A Change in Me’, Belle and her father sat on a bench upstage while the lighting spot was further downstage. Other design decisions hindered the aesthetics of the scenes, such as during the song ‘Gaston’ where Gaston, Lefou and the Silly Girls were placed downstage left and lit in a cool spotlight while the rest of the stage was fully lit in a warm wash. Perhaps other solutions for focussing attention could have been explored to ensure balance and visual interest was maintained.
Sound design and operation by James Walmsley supported the enormous cast and provided a platform on which the iconic tale could be told. Walmsley skillfully balanced the cast with the orchestra, delivering crisp renditions of the songs audiences know and love. Despite the size of the ensemble, the volume was fairly low towards the back of the theatre. Perhaps this was due to a smaller number of microphones, however, it would have been nice to hear more punch behind the large ensemble numbers.
As both a set-piece and technical element, the projections on the back of the stage were effective in setting the location of every moment. With a different backdrop for every room, as well as inserted green screen video sections, this element minimised the need for significant set changes. Video design and operation by Gerard Livsey was a fantastic addition to the production, however, the output could have been cleaned up to maximise the effect. The actual projector screen seemed to have been hung up a little bit haphazardly with large creases and joins visible to the audience. While not detrimental to the effect, this small element could have been cleaned up to polish the production.
Similar to the Disney version, the Beast owns a mirror that connects him to the outside world by allowing him to see whatever he summons. In order to communicate what was being seen by the Beast and Belle when looking at the mirror, Livsey superimposed videos of the characters on the background-projected image. While this was a notable effort, the video projections were grainy, sometimes a little awkward and lacked polish, which could have elevated the rest of the production. Perhaps LED strips could have been added to the inside of the mirror which lit up while it was in use, illuminating the character’s faces. Sometimes it can be advantageous to substitute design choices in order to solidify an artistic aesthetic rather than using elements that cannot be fully realised.
A particularly effective technical moment was the use of the scrim during the prologue. The back of the stage was subtly lit as dancers swirled around a dance floor while action occurred downstage. An excellent sequence to open the show, this design choice was subtle, effective and aesthetically intentional.
The Beast’s tower was the primary set piece by designers Deian Ping and Livsey. Sitting off the stage left for the entire production, it was effective in creating levels while clearing space for the large cast. Smaller items were rolled on and off, such as tables and chairs, as well as Maurice’s invention which was complete with moving axes. This simple yet effective set design allowed for ample blocking opportunities while providing enough context to set the scene.
Costume design by Ping, Belinda Lewis and Renee Milton was the absolute hero of the show. Every single item was well made, intelligently designed and reflected the characters they were portraying. Not only would this be a large task for a standard-sized show, but it was made even more impressive that the team managed to clothe a colossal 56-strong cast. Belle’s signature yellow dress was a highlight, so much so that the audience let out an audible sigh when it appeared on stage. Another bravo moment was ‘Be Our Guest’, when the whole cast emerged clothed in crockery, forks, knives, appliances and napkins. The entire costume team should be congratulated for creating a cohesive and excellently constructed design and execution.
While there may not be many harmony-heavy songs within ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the music must be done right. Audiences know every lyric and melody line and hold high expectations for the delivery of the iconic soundtrack. Musical director Michael Keen did an excellent job of recreating the numbers with a diverse ensemble. It is difficult to lead a cast of that size and it is clear that Keen was able to handle the challenge with adept skill.
The Twelfth Night theatre stage is quite deep and wide, which allowed director Deian Ping a fair amount of scope to play with. There was natural movement throughout the production and every faucet of the stage was used. Some moments could have been further explored to allow the full emotional depth and nuance to be realised. While Belle’s song, ‘Home’, was vocally excellent, it lacked physical dynamics and was a bit too much of a “stand and sing”. For a song that is so emotionally fueled it may have been nice to see some further direction aided by lighting changes to theatrically explore Belle’s feelings in this moment.
Choreography by Julianne Burke was another stand-out element of the production. At no point did the movement falter and Burke captured the essence of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ perfectly. The production included cast members with every type of dance skill and experience and Burke managed everyone’s ability levels skillfully. ‘Gaston’ was a particular highlight with a dance break featuring intricate cup choreography and precise movements. It was a pleasure to watch and cleanly put together. The 12-person strong dance ensemble wowed audiences with the synchronicity and skills that surpassed standard community theatre. It was a polished and professional performance that added significantly to the production.
The lead cast was excellently selected and their skills were clear from the outset. While Belinda Lewis as Belle sometimes drifted into pantomime acting, her vocals and Belle-ish charm won audiences over. Little people in the audience oohed and aahed every time she stepped on stage. Real-life husband and on-stage love interest Michael Lewis as the Beast was a perfect match for Queensland Musical Theatre’s Belle. Their chemistry and sense of play within their performance was lovely to witness.
Byron Philp as Gaston and Tristan Vanyai as Lefou were a perfect duo, bouncing off each other with comedic energy and general hilarity. Their vocals were a particular highlight as they blended together. Philp and Vanyai were a sublime embodiment of the characters made famous in the film.
Anita Parakh-Morgan as Mrs Potts and Kathryn Bradbury as Wardrobe delivered exceptional and professional vocals and sassy goodness. Their performances rivalled any professional production and were absolute stand-outs within the performance. Darcy Rhodes as Lumiere and James Rogers as Cogsworth were similarly sublime and had the audiences in stitches with their excellent comedic timing and repartee.
Queensland Musical Theatre delivered a tale as old as time that transported audiences and gave young princes and princesses a theatrical experience to remember. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ brings everyone’s favourite characters from the movie screen and puts them right before your very eyes…and that’s what you call magic!
‘Beauty and the Beast’ performs until Sunday, 13 June 2021 at Twelfth Night Theatre. For more information visit the Queensland Musical Theatre website.