To the Millennial generation (and their parents), “Beauty and the Beast’’ will always evoke fond memories.
The 1991 film is a fable with wit and heart, delivering a useful message for the young — that true beauty lies within — without being ham-fisted about it. “Beauty and the Beast’’ gleamed brightly among the remarkable string of animated gems that led the Disney renaissance two decades ago, including “The Little Mermaid,’’ “Aladdin,’’ “The Lion King,’’ and “Pocahontas.’’
The stage version of “Beauty’’ has enjoyed considerable success of its own, becoming one of the longest-running productions in Broadway history and launching multiple national tours, the newest of which has now arrived at the Boston Opera House.
This “Beauty,’’ directed by Rob Roth, has its undeniable charms and its irresistible moments. But even granting that I’m way, way outside the show’s target demographic, “Beauty’’ strikes me largely as more serviceable than magical. Something has been lost in translation from screen to stage; the production has too much of the formulaic, assembly-line industrial product about it and too little of the movie’s soul.
The best songs are the ones drawn from the movie’s score, by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman: “Be Our Guest’’ (with performers in the Opera House production attired as golden flatware), “Something There,’’ the title tune. The songs composed by Menken and Tim Rice for the stage adaptation are considerably less memorable. The cast is capable but, with a few exceptions — such as Matt Farcher’s Gaston — not especially distinctive. The spark of true creative inspiration is only intermittently in evidence; seldom is one really transported. (A substantial number of the preteen kids in the audience on opening night would beg to differ, to judge by their enthusiastic reaction).
The beauty of the title is a book-loving young woman named Belle (played by Emily Behny). Belle is an archetypal Disney heroine, pluckily coping with dire circumstances and learning a bit about the depth of her own inner resources along the way. She is saddled with a feckless parent — her loving but dotty dad Maurice (William A. Martin), an inventor — while also forced to fend off the advances of Gaston, a brawny hunter. Farcher’s performance of “Gaston’’ (along with Jimmy Larkin’s Lefou and members of the ensemble) is a high point of the show, one of the times when “Beauty and the Beast’’ genuinely bursts with energy. His bicep-flexing poses and strutting boasts (“I use antlers in all of my decorating,’’ he sings) carry amusing echoes of Stephen Sondheim’s “Bring Me My Bride,’’ sung by the equally self-adoring Miles Gloriosus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.’’
When Maurice gets lost in the woods and blunders into a forbidding castle, he is imprisoned by the Beast (Dane Agostinis), who is, in reality, an enchanted prince. Years earlier, the prince had refused to provide shelter to an elderly beggar because she was so ugly; she turned out to be an enchantress, and cast a spell on him. Also inhabiting the Beast’s castle are his servants, who, under the same spell cast on the prince, have been transformed into sundry household objects, including Cogsworth (James May), a fussy clock; Lumiere (Michael Haller), a very Gallic candelabra; Babette (Jessica Lorion), a flirtatious feather duster; and Mrs. Potts (Julia Louise Hosack), a teapot.
The spell can only be broken if the Beast can learn to truly love another, and if another can learn to truly love him. This is a crucial bit of fine print, because the Beast is a shaggy, horned creature who looks like a cross between a buffalo and Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion in an exceptionally bad mood.
But when Belle agrees to stay in the castle in return for her father’s freedom, a relationship slowly begins to form between her and the Beast. The clock is ticking, though, and if true love doesn’t bloom by the time the last petal falls off a certain rose, the Beast is fated to remain a Beast forever.
Although the climactic confrontation between the Beast and Gaston arrives too abruptly, the final scene of transformation that follows is masterfully handled by Roth, the director. In that spellbinding moment, “Beauty and the Beast’’ captures the magic that eludes it for too much of the evening.