Capitol Theatre, June 22


So you think you’ve seen some coups de theatre in your time? Think again. Beauty and the Beast dusts the eyes with so much implausible visual magic and theatrical sleight-of-hand as to gently blind most people most of the time to the show’s imperfections. Even those dragged along by their insistent eight-year-old daughter – those who might grumble in advance about the puerile subject matter and chintzy Disney – will be amazed to find themselves enthralled by what happens when bursting imaginations, brilliant technicians and vast budgets collide.

Photos: Daniel Boud.

Stanley A Meyer’s scenic design is a wonderworld fully integrating old-fashioned backdrops, enchanting three-dimensional sets and startling projections. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are more than a match, with a sparkly yellow gown of Beauty’s getting its own round of applause. But then this show was like a circus in terms of its clapping frequency, with a spontaneous standing ovation during Act One.

The essence of the story, said to be thousands of years old, was distilled into the tale we recognise nearly 300 years ago. Several film versions predated Disney’s 1991 animated feature, before the same company hit Broadway in 1994 with this musical penned by Alan Menken (music) Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics) and Linda Woolverton (book). Directed and choreographed by Matt West, that production has finally come to Sydney.

West’s witty, exuberant and even breathtaking choreography is supremely realised by a local cast that’s led by Shubshri Kandiah as Belle the Beauty. Three months ago Kandiah was Cinderella in Belvoir’s brilliant production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and the characters are not dissimilar: an ingenue with a heart of gold who’s much smarter than all those who would manipulate her.

Shubshri Kandiah and Brendan Xavier. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Kandiah charms with her presence, the lightness of her acting and the quality of her voice – even if her singing brings us to one of the show’s aforementioned imperfections. Menken’s score is an old-world Broadway melange with precursors stretching from the 1920s all the way through to the 1960s and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but the songs fall into two camps: the dazzlingly engaging comic numbers and the rest. When Belle or the Beast (Brendan Xavier) must sing of their emotions, all the playfulness and nuance seems to fly out the latticed window, leaving much heaving of bosoms, hitting of high notes and swelling of orchestrations, but with all the sound and fury signifying very little.

Xavier acquits himself well, although it’s a role that’s somewhat thankless. For most of the show as his Beast is sulking, hulking, thick, wrathful and monosyllabic, and it would hardly have lost the eight-year-olds in the audience had the character been drawn with a smidge more complexity.

By contrast, the fullness of the minor characters is a strength, led by Gaston, the posturing village strongman (who thinks Belle is rightfully his just because he desires her), amusingly played by Jackson Head. Sustaining the laughs are Rohan Browne as Lumiere, Gareth Jacobs as Cogsworth, Jayde Westaby as Mrs Potts, Hayley Martin as Babette and the rest of the substantial cast. The ensemble work is flawless, as is the surround-sound and the orchestra directed by Luke Hunter.

The story’s enduring appeal and pertinence is that the Beast’s “otherness” ultimately does not prevent Belle falling for him. Belle, meanwhile, has all the snowflake purity of the fairytale, while also being sharp, brave and in complete command of her destiny – so not a bad role model for those enraptured eight-year-olds.