Beauty and the Beast

Shubshri Kandiah and Brendan Xavier in Disney's Beauty and The Beast the Musical photo by Daniel BoudSince its publication in 1740, French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s La Belle et la Bête has inspired a long list of adaptations encompassing literature, film, television and theatre.

Fast forwarding to 1991, along came Walt Disney Pictures’ award-winning animation movie musical, Beauty and the Beast and, hot on the heels of its success, its 1994 Broadway premiere adaptation which has enchanted audiences ever since. 

It’s back in Melbourne, after almost 30 years since its 1996 Australian premiere, strutting its refreshed and lavish blockbuster style to complete an east coast trifecta.

At Saturday’s opening night at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the audience went berserk, revelling in its wondrously reimagined, retina-dazzling staging driven by an exceptionally talented cast and tireless, enthusiastic ensemble.

Overall, the show is a triumph of creative vision realised with polish and precision, structured around Stanley Meyer’s well-considered, dynamically employed set design. Impressive projections, stage effects and theatrical illusions by Jim Steinmeyer add to the composition while Natasha Katz’s judicious lighting astutely creates mood and complexity. But what of its emotional heart? 

AAR-Shubshri-Kandiah-and-Brendan-Xavier-in-Disney's-Beauty-and-The-Beast-photo-by-Daniel-BoudThe enigmatic tale concerns the fantastical romance between an inhospitable prince transformed into a horned and hairy creature, Beast (Brendan Xavier), and a beautiful, inquiring and selfless young woman, Belle (Shubshri Kandiah).

Embedded within, its sentiment that love is an enduring, powerful force – tempered by a willingness to both look below the surface and make sacrifices – provides copious ideas for exploration and a little helping of didacticism. 

Rewritten by American author Linda Woolverton as both book and libretto for the musical, the inherent tension of time being of the essence is front and centre. If the prince can learn to love and be loved in return before the rose bloom loses its last petal – gifted by an enchantress the beast refused to give shelter to – he and his retinue of servants avoid remaining locked in their transformed state forever.

That tension manifests well under the direction of Andrew Flatt et al. but the conflicting issue lies in the fact that the central focus on Beast and Belle is often swamped by overly divergent and shameless, variety show-like entertainment, something the Disney brand effortlessly brings magic and mastery to. 

Gareth Jacobs, Hayley Martin, Shubshri Kandiah, Rohan Browne and the company of Disney's Beauty and The Beast the Musical - performing Be Our Guest photo by Daniel BoudIt’s unequivocally indulgent and hypnotic, peaking with two unforgettable and exhilarating razzmatazz showstoppers in Act 1 alone. The macho-idolising Gaston with its disguised flying daggers and arrows, and the elaborately drawn and synchronised, Busby Berkeley-esque Be Our Guestin which the dinnerware and cutlery are the standout feature. Act 2 doesn’t miss out with the cast performing a vibrant Human Again.

And then, perhaps forgetting where proceedings are up to, you’re back into the main fare where some narrative developments can only be assumed. Beast and Belle’s romance isn’t the most seamlessly stitched affair but, at the very least, Xavier and Kandiah create genuine chemistry that really takes off when Belle’s love for books and Beast’s enormous library catalyse a tender opening of hearts.

Xavier digs in deep in the process of civilizing himself as a worthy contender for Belle’s heart. Striking something of a superhero form and sporting expressively honed vocals, Xavier’s Beast makes early inroads into audience sympathies. 

In Belle we see an intelligent, strong-willed woman with her own agenda and a rarity to applaud among fairy tale heroines. Kandiah’s pure and radiant vocals elevate the role delightfully although the ostentatious fairy tale gown that finally dresses the romantic union seems somewhat amiss – Ann Hould-Ward’s costume designs are otherwise sensibly conceived and inventively winning. 

The real beast it turns out is the brain cell deficient and narcissistic Gaston who Rubin Matters embodies with bicep-curling bravado and gusto while Nick Cox, as his besotted chum Le Fou, is comic joy. 

Gareth Jacobs Hayley Martin Rohan Browne Jayde Westaby and Alana Tranter in Disney's Beauty and the Beast photo by Daniel BoudHumour – reliable, uncomplicated and even predictable – is abundant and accessible enough in Woolverton’s libretto for even youngsters to get a kick out of. Notably exchanged between the animated servants hoping for a successful match, it’s certainly delivered with particularly well-timed flair and charm in the hands of Gareth Jacobs as Cogsworth, the time-pressured clock, and Rohan Browne as Lumiere, the flamboyant, first-class dancing candelabra. 

Memorable too are Jayde Westaby as the kindly teapot Mrs Potts, Alana Tranter’s vixen-like Madame, Haley Martin’s ornately styled vanity table and, with all but a face beaming its sunny disposition from a teacup, little Zanda Wilkinson’s endearing Chip. There’s also warmth aplenty in Rodney Dobson’s take on Belle’s eccentric inventor father, Maurice.

It doesn’t help, however, that Alan Menken’s score – appealingly melodic and richly interpreted as it is by conductor Luke Hunter and his band of 10 – is an overly amped list of songs with little overarching cohesion. If there’s one composition to highlight among the rest, it’s the beautifully contrasted moods of light and dark and delicacy and weight of the overture, symbolic of the two protagonists, that truly hit the mark.  

But, in the end, despite the small misgivings, it’s near impossible not to be swayed by Disney’s massive investment and the inbuilt magic and seduction Beauty and the Beast exudes. With the new financial year underway, it’s well-worth budgeting for. 

Beauty and the Beast
Her Majesty’s Theatre, 219 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 29 June 2024
Season booking through to 29 December 2024

For more information, visit: for details.

Images: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – all photos by Daniel Boud

Review: Paul Selar