Wanna Bête? 

Playhouse brings Disney's Beauty and the Beast to the stage. €

Belle, the brainy heroine of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, sits in the castle library reading the story of King Arthur to a nearly illiterate beast who hangs on her every word like a child who doesn¹t want to go to bed. As she speaks the closing words about Arthur¹s death and Queen Guinevere¹s self-exile, the beast is overcome. He praises the story for its beauty and its ability to move him and make him see the world in a different way.

The irony, of course, is that Belle has read an epic tragedy -- the kind of story the Walt Disney Corporation is famous for ruining by tacking on happy endings in order to enhance the box-office appeal. It¹s almost as if Disney -- who hit box-office gold in 1989 (two years before the release of Beauty and the Beast) with a feel-good version of Hans Christian Andersen¹s aquatic tragedy, The Little Mermaid -- was subtly apologizing for its half-century of crimes against history and classic literature. The second (and best) irony: Of all the dark and brooding fairy tales Mouse Corp. has re-imagined, Beauty and the Beast remains true to the spirit of its rich and varied source material.

Under the guidance of frequent guest director Scott Ferguson, Playhouse on the Square¹s production of Beauty and the Beast mixes spectacle with first-rate performances. The result may be less magical than the original animated feature and certainly less artistically satisfying than Jean Cocteau¹s 1946 film, but unlike most of the pabulum passed off as ³family entertainment,² it genuinely offers a little something for everyone to enjoy.

It¹s difficult to trace the origins of Beauty and the Beast, as there are many variations on the tale emerging from both oral and written traditions that go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Elements of the story can be found in the tale of Cupid and Psyche and Apuleius¹ second-century fable The Golden Ass. The beast has appeared variously as a snake, a pig, and in one Asian variation as a ³monkey son-in-law.² The ³beauty² is -- in spite of the traditional subservient role of women -- unfailingly smart, skillful, and more than skin-deep. The story as we know it today has its origins in Catalan, the region along the Mediterranean where French, Spanish, and Islamic influences converge. It was popularized by Mother Goose in the 16th century, but took on a new life when Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve penned a lengthy tale of warring fairy kingdoms that included a 400-page version of the story. What¹s notable about this version is its savaging of forced marriages wherein women are often required to take husbands far more monstrous than the story¹s misunderstood beast. Disney cherry-picks elements from this version of the story and marries them with Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont¹s better known -- and significantly shortened -- version of the tale. With its protofeminist points and its message of defeating prejudice through knowledge and understanding, Beauty and the Beast is a truly progressive fairytale, and although the action becomes muddled at times, none of this is lost in Playhouse¹s lovely and unfailingly energetic production.

Sets by Mark Guirguis have all the charm of classic children¹s book illustrations, though they are often swathed in darkness as Lee Burckes¹ minimal lighting design takes center stage. Counter to the traditions of recent Broadway fantasias, the technical aspects of this production are all designed to showcase the actors who do their best to morph into cartoons, without losing an ounce of humanity in the process.

As the beautiful Belle, Angela Groeschen never once allows herself to become another simpleminded ingénue. She is by turns sassy, strong, brave, bookish, and simply lovely to look upon. This is Groeschen¹s swan song as a member of Playhouse¹s resident company, and the actress, who has given Memphis memorable takes on such famous characters as Aldonza and Lady Macbeth, has taken a role she could have done in her sleep and imbued it with intellect and even a hint of righteous anger. Guest artist Jim Sorensen doesn¹t achieve much depth as the troubled Beast, but his height and his velvety baritone help him glide effectively through the already two-dimensional role.

The anthropomorphic supporting cast and chorus ultimately emerge as the true stars of this production, with Megan Bowers, Michael Ingersoll, Pete Montgomery, Cheyenne Nelson, and Madeleine Carol Rogers leading the way. Dan Zakarija¹s take on Gaston, a monster of machismo and vanity who is ready to imprison Belle¹s father and kill the Beast in order to force a marriage, is appropriately absurd but thoroughly believable as the story¹s chief villain.

After a two-year hiatus from Playhouse on the Square, Project: Motion¹s Jay Rapp returns in the role of choreographer. As always, Rapp¹s inspired dance numbers become crucial to the storytelling, and it¹s difficult to know where his work ends and director Ferguson¹s begins.

Disney¹s conquest of Broadway has made many critics, already put out by the hollow Lloyd-Webberization of the Great White Way, more than a little nervous, and for perfectly valid reasons. Still, given a choice between Disney¹s Beauty and the Beast and Webber¹s Phantom of the Opera, the former wins out for storytelling, musical composition, performance opportunities, and good old-fashioned fun. Who could have even imagined that Disney might emerge as the lesser of two evils? 

Through July 24th

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