Beauty and the Beast
Starring Andrea McArdle
The Palace Theatre, NYC -- 5/21/99
Review by John Kenrick
There are few bona fide musical theatre stars these days. Mind you, there are plenty of "stars" working in musicals, but they tend to be shopworn TV or film stars looking to boost their sagging careers. (Remember how Grease turned Brooke Shields from a "has been" into a "hot property"?) But it is nearly impossible to find stars who built their careers primarily in musical theatre. Most of that disappearing breed are either "of a certain age," working on a television series, or retired.
Andrea McArdle is a genuine musical theatre star. From Annie to Starlight Express to Les Miz to State Fair, she has made her name in musical theatre with a glorious voice and a disarming stage presence. When it was announced that she was taking over the role of Belle in the Broadway company of Beauty and the Beast, it sounded like perfect casting. I blew the bucks, got front orchestra seats and took my Mom as a belated birthday present. (Note: the last time my mother went to see a show on Broadway was when I took her to see the original cast of Annie over 22 years ago. Talk about symmetry!)
I am delighted to tell you that Ms. McArdle did not disappoint us. Looking lovely, she had the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she came on stage. Her voice is better than ever, with a powerhouse sound that could warm the heart of any theatre buff, and her strong presence made the show much more effective that it has been up till now. She has no trouble switching from charming to feisty in a flash. I liked Susan Egan and enjoyed others I have seen in this role, but McArdle is easily the best of the Belles.
She had a fine match in James Barbour, who's grand baritone made the Beast's numbers breathtaking. He also struck a nice balance between the dark and light sides of the Beast, a trick other actors have not always pulled off. The result was a scary but ultimately lovable character, just as the late Howard Ashman had intended. He also has the good looks required t make the Beasts final transformation really work. Barbour is the very model of a Broadway leading man, and I hope an original role worthy of his talents comes along soon.
The much loved Beth Fowler has returned as Mrs. Potts, a role she originated on Broadway and still handles adroitly. The other supporting actors were quite good, with one standout. Patrick Page, an actor new to me but with solid credentials, was a genuine show-stealer as Lumiere. Every line and bit of shtick hit home, and he gave "Be Our Guest" the sense of controlled hilarity that makes it really work. (Yes its overblown and silly, but its great to see an audience still can go nuts over such a joyous showstopper.) At curtain call time, the audience roared for Page as if he were a star -- an honor he had royally earned. I hope to see Mr. Page grace many more Broadway musicals -- he's a superb comic actor, with a great voice and extraordinary good looks to boot. Casting directors, please note!
The production still looks good, no mean feat after six years. There have been changes -- some good, some not so good. The original misguided idea of using stuffed wolves on poles during the forest chase scenes has been scrapped, but the new dancers in wolf costumes are ever so reminiscent of Cats. The human chorus is more cartoonish than when the show first opened, a drawback I noted in the national touring cast last year. Big mistake! This show has to be played for real -- playing it silly weakens the show for both adults and kids. The true Walt Disney legacy is to never play down to children, thereby never embarrassing adults. Would that the current Disney Corporation would keep that in mind on stage as it once did on screen.
But hey, the folks at Disney had the good sense to bring in Andrea McArdle, so I'm not going to be too hard on them. This lady is doing a wonderful job as Belle. Its that rare treat a chance to see a total pro at her best -- what a pleasure!.
(By the way, I saw McArdle give a sensational performance a few years ago in a tour of Annie Get Your Gun, her singing was infinitely better than that of a MUCH older actress currently playing that part across the street. Now if only that show's producers would follow Disney's lead.)