Written by Kayla Runquist, former SLAH editor/columnist
That’s what you expect when you go to see Beauty and the Beast. The magical objects, the beautiful dancing, the love story…. But after seeing a production done by NETworks production company on Chicago Broadway, I have realized that there is a different kind of ‘tale as old as time’ and this one, is slightly less romantic.
The singing was excellent, the chorus was very strong, and there were more than a few of the leads by whom I was very impressed. My issue with the show arose in the things that this company tried to change. Theoretically, a classic Disney tale like this one is clean cut and ready for the stage. I have seen it produced many times without any changes done to the original, and no part of me was ever bored, or wanting for more. That is because, when you find a formula that works you should stick with it. What the NETworks people seemed inclined to do, however, was to change as much as they could in order to make it seem ‘fresh’, ‘new’ and, yes, even ‘edgy’.
An example of the artistic changes made unnecessarily is the character of The Beast himself. He is known to be a damaged, angry soul, who learns to love because of Belle’s kindness. But instead of showing this strong (and quite compelling) character arc, this company decided to sacrifice strength for…. Humor. They took several scenes that should have been more serious, and, if humorous at all, only in a dry sense, and turned them into comedy routines. When Belle refused to come down for dinner, the Beast was literally throwing a temper tantrum like a twelve year old. At this point in the story, his character is not supposed to be funny, or lovable; he is supposed to be angry, and hardened. By turning him into a goofball, the writers confused their audience. How are we supposed to later be afraid of the Beast, (thus justifying Belle’s flight) if we are introduced to him as this pansy whiner? Additionally, the later scenes when he is falling in love with Belle are less compelling, because we did not witness his strong angst. Finally, his climactic Act 1 song If I Can’t Love Her loses a lot of its punch and beauty when the image floating in the back of our heads is a complaining child.
Additionally to, and even more disturbing than, the artistic choices that were made, there were several choices that seemed to be aimed at making the show more ‘adult’. The relationship between Lumiere and Babette, while always flirty, has never been something that has made me cringe with discomfort. They are cute together, and in the end, when she says “I like you better zis way too.” I say “Awww” with the rest of the crowd. However. In this show, their relationship was not cute and it was not flirty. It was disturbingly perverted. There were physically pantomimed sexual references between the two actors. Onstage. In front of at least a dozen little girls dressed up as Belle. I don’t believe anything more needs to be said about that.
Finally—and though this is at the conclusion it should not be assumed that this means it is any less important—the costumes for the female enchanted objects were disturbingly burlesque-like. For all of Be Our Guest, they were wearing full-busted leotards, with pink hearts over their private areas, and garters on their thighs. It beats me why such costumes would help portray someone being a fork. Forks are not sexy. Forks are not attractive. They are forks. Additionally, the male enchanted objects had respectable pants on, so, it cannot be said that this was just an ‘artistic’ choice. This was blatant objectification of women, and it made me (as a woman) uncomfortable. I’m sure Be Our Guest was a fantastic show-stopping number. I wouldn’t know. I was too busy being extremely uncomfortable, thinking about all the little girls and young men in the audience who were seeing it.
These things are the kind of things I would expect of Kinky Boots or Dirty Dancing. But I did not buy a ticket to see either of those shows. I expected to see Beauty and the Beast and what a got was, indeed a ‘tale as old as time’. The tale of people taking something beautiful and innocent, and making it nasty and perverted.
I do not want to take away from the talent in this show. Gaston blew me away. The Beast’s song was touching. The chorus was the strongest small-chorus I’ve ever seen. Fantastic. But when I left the theatre I could not focus on all the great things that had happened on that stage, because I was distracted by the skanky costumes, the odd character switches, and the inappropriate additions.
While creative license is something that every director has a right to, I do believe that those changes which are morally unacceptable for us as audience viewers need to be protested. The entertainment industry will keep producing what we keep asking for. That is all there is to it. So it is up to us to dictate what we want. Speak up. Don’t be afraid to write a letter. To have an opinion. No, don’t flood secretary’s desks with complaints like ‘the music was too loud’ or ‘I didn’t like so-and-so’. But think about what is important to you and to your family. Think about what you want your kids seeing, and write about that. Write about something that matters. Tell them what you will not accept. Tell them that it is okay to put on a show that has been put on before, because sometimes classic is best. And there are some tales, that don’t need changing.
I give NETworks' Beauty a three out of five for quality, because while the chorus was strong, there were noticeable weak areas in the leads. (Unexpected for a Broadway show) And it has received an unfortunate three out of five for Family Friendliness, for the aforementioned reasons.