Beauty and the Beast / Frozen

Touring (reviewed at Liverpool Empire, (reviewed at Liverpool Empire September 29); Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (reviewed September 22)

Reviews: Beauty and the Beast / Frozen

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The “Disneyifcation” of Broadway — and in particular of the formerly derelict stretch of 42nd Street that includes the venerable New Amsterdam Theatre that Disney presided over a lavish refurbishment of — was a big part of the regeneration of Times Square as a cleaned-up, shiny, family-friendly tourist district, after some decades in the 70s and 80s when it was a magnet for drugs, porn and prostitution.

And it all started with Beauty and the Beast, their first animated screen feature to make a transition to live Broadway show that premiered at the Palace and played there until 1999 (original artwork above), before moving across the street in 1999 to the Lunt Fontanne, on the corner of 46th and Broadway, whose neighbours at the time were a 24-hour branch of Howard Johnson’s and a tiny entrance to an upstairs male strip show called the Gaiety that was not exactly family-friendly, but would have hardly been observed by theatregoers heading to the Lunt for the next six years.

That epitomised the uneasy co-existence of the seedier old Times Square with the new one that was being forged, and inevitably the new won out over the old (the Gaiety, which — full disclosure — wasone of my favourite-ever ‘performance spaces’ in all of New York, finally shut its doors in March 2005, and was eventually torn down, along with the Howard Johnson’s, and replaced with a clothes retail outlet).

By then, Disney had fully set down firm roots on Broadway, adding The Lion King to its roster (opening at the New Amsterdam in 1997, now continuing at the Minskoff), Aida (2000), Mary Poppins (2006), and Aladdin (2014, now at the New Amsterdam), all in their hits column, while in the deficit column they also produced Tarzan (2006), The Little Mermaid (2007) and Frozen (2018, shut down when the pandemic arrived, when the company calculated that when Broadway returns, as it has now, there wouldn’t be the market for three Disney titles)

And now the circle of life (or at least of Disney) has come back to the beginning, with a new, refreshed production of Beauty and the Beast, which is currently on a UK tour.

There was always a slightly pantomimic quality to the original production, which had been entrusted not to a director with an established Broadway pedigree but Robert Jess Roth whose background at the time was with Disney theme park shows; ditto the choreographer Matt West. (They were subsequently employed to do Aida, too, but released after its try-out in Atlanta, to be replaced respectively by Robert Falls and Wayne Cilento).

Roth was originally due to return for this revival, but he was forced to withdraw in April after the revelation of a leaked email that he wrote to producer Scott Rudin in which Roth mocked Broadway actor Karen Olivo; bizarrely, it was seen by a fellow traveller aboard an aeroplane that Roth was travelling on, who managed to transcribe it; it included a remark suggesting that Rudin be awarded an “honorary Tony Award for somehow getting that horrible woman to quit acting…God bless you Scott for your service to American theatre.” But West, formerly only the choreographer, now does double duty as both director and choreographer, with Roth credited in the programme for “production conception.”

Whoever has done the work — and original designers Stanley A Meyer (sets), Ann Hould-Ward (costumes) and Natasha Katz (lighting) are amongst the original creatives to also return to reprise their duties here — it has been faithfully yet gloriously re-imagined and restored, with new video and projection technology that would not have been available at the time of the original. (Paradoxically, the freshness of the design serves to highlight how tired the Liverpool Empire is looking at the moment, with its threadbare carpets and creaking seats).

But at least the production is full of sparkle, with the act one finale of “Be Our Guest” that’s like a giant bauble of a Follies revue number come to 3D life. It’s not the only time the stage show actually tops the animation in sheer spectacle; but it is also populated by real actors, not drawings, that lend it actual heart and genuine sex appeal. Which is saying something for a Disney show!

The West End-ready company is led by Emmanuel Kojo as a big-voiced Beast (is looking for a new Phantom, he’s the man!) and Grace Swaby (standing in on press night for the indisposed Courtney Stapleton as Belle).

It was wonderful to have such West End veterans as Gavin Lee, legend Nigel Richards (a one-time West End Phantom) and Martin Ball in support as Lumiere, Cogsworth and Maurice, plus wonderful Sam Bailey as Mrs Potts and dashing Tom Senior as the preeningly vain Gaston.

Disney have always taken a no-expenses spared approach to the hardware of building a new production, with audiences always rewarded with a lot of bang for their (often considerable) buck in terms of how the shows look.

And never has that been more true than with the utterly eye-poppingly lavish London transfer of Frozen. (And unlike Beauty and the Beast whose spectacle accentuates how scruffy Liverpool Empire is, Frozen is also the inaugural production in the stunningly refurbished Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, after an extensive and expensive — over £60million — restoration (pictured above), so design and auditorium gloriously complement each other in the wow stakes).

At a time when less is often more in theatre design, Frozen goes for broke with more of just about everything. The royal palace is positively palatial; the ice bridge incredibly chilly.

But even if the design (Christopher Oram for sets and costumes, Finn Ross for video, and Michael Curry for puppets) and effects (Jeremy Chernick is credited with special effects design) are astonishing, it wouldn’t be enough if the storytelling and performances weren’t as propulsive as they are here.

Under the expert stewardship of director Michael Grandage, the show has been given an epic sweep but also sincerity and emotional integrity that is heartwarming and sometimes heart-stopping. (The amazing transformation in Let It Go, stunningly lit by Neil Austin, is simply thrilling; pictured above).

The performances are a knock-out too — Stephanie McKeon and Samantha Barks are perfect as the feisty, funny Anna and icy Elsa respectively. And there’s great comic support from Craig Gallivan as Olaf and Obioma Ugoala as Kristoff.

I covered the show’s original Denver premiere in 2017, then its Broadway debut in 2018, both for The Stage, so I don’t have much to add, but this is easily the best Disney theatrical production since The Lion King, delivering a new, enhanced live version of an already beloved property to give it fresh and exhilarating new life.