Broadway’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in Chicago enchants all ages

When I was a kid, the Disney Princess phenomenon hadn’t struck, but I did have a favorite princess: Belle. I liked her for our similarities – we were both bookish and brunette – and her admirable attributes – independent, kind-hearted and, yes, beautiful.

So it comes as little surprise that Broadway in Chicago’s performance of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is kicking off a six-week run at the Oriental Theatre, utterly charmed this Belle-loving adult.

And it’s a good bet your little princess will come away equally enchanted.

The tale of the beautiful bookworm who falls in love with her captor, a prince-turned-beast, is well-known. But in the first half of the stage show, the love story at the heart of the narrative seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot, as the audience enjoys the singing and dancing of the townspeople and spirited “household objects.”

Gaston (Logan Denninghoff) steals the show as the cocky musclehead with his sights set on Belle; he and sycophantic sidekick LeFou (Andrew Kruep) get all the best lines and receive an enthusiastic ovation for “Gaston.”

That enthusiasm is only matched by the response to signature song “Be Our Guest,” in which various household objects put on a spectacular show, complete with kick-lines and confetti. It might be bit strange to see a grown man singing and dancing while dressed as a candelabra, but it adds whimsy and your feet will be tapping along.

For the more starry-eyed among us, the chemistry between Belle (Emily Behny) and the Beast (Dane Agostinis) really picks up in Act II, culminating in housekeeper-turned-teapot Mrs. Potts’ (Julia Louise Hosack) rendition of the title song.

The entire show is staged in candy-colored hues, serving as a reminder that a cartoon is its source material. That transition from animation to live action has the effect of making everything seem more real, which means that the flirtation between Lumiere (Michael Haller) and Babette (Erin Coors) and the Beast’s initial violence toward Belle feel a little more adult than in the original version. And the final battle scene between Gaston and the Beast may be more intense than the littlest audience members can handle, although it’s staged behind a screen to make it less vivid.

But the live action also means that several aspects are more magical than the animated version. The final transformation scene still has me wondering exactly how they did it.

And the music from the 1991 movie by Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman seamlessly blend with more stage-quality tunes by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. Emily Behny shines with a lovely, girl-next-door style that perfectly fits Belle’s character.

Throughout the show, I was struck by the joy of the entire production, and found myself grinning. The show truly is for all ages, from the little girl decked out in Belle regalia on up. Small voices join in laughing and cheering, even for the puns that probably go over their heads. And the plot could lead to some good discussions about judging people based on their appearance or excluding those who seem different.

For those who already love the animated movie, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast show serves as a perfect entry into the world of Broadway. And it even inspired me to go home and dig out my CD of the Broadway soundtrack from back in 1994 – and may cause me to pop the movie in for a walk down memory lane.

It seems that the tale of “Beauty and the Beast” is as ageless as it is timeless.

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