ShentonSTAGE Daily for FRIDAY JULY 1

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily. I unexpectedly had a double Disney day in the West End yesterday — going to see the London opening, as scheduled, of the tour of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the London Palladium last night, but also dropping in MARY POPPINS at the matinee before it, when my planned afternoon at the Donmar Warehouse to see A DOLL’S HOUSE PART TWO was cancelled due to a COVID case in the company. 

It’s funny when a diary change produces a new scheduling coincidence that creates a theme to the day. It gave me a moment to reflect on Disney’s super-charged theatrical legacy since they first launched their corporate assault on Broadway in 1994 with their 1st screen-to-stage version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, remaking the stage musical in their distinctive family colours even if Broadway itself hadn’t yet gentrified into the Disneyland alternative it now is, partly as a result of their influence.

They opened BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the storied variety house the Palace Theatre (pictured above) on Broadway itself, between 46th and 47th street — another sign of the current times is that this theatre has been shut for the last four years, since SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS closed, to facilitate a major groundshift, in every sense, for the theatre, as it has been raised some 30 feet off the ground, to accommodate 15,000 square feet of street level retail space as the theatre is now integrated into a new hotel development above it. It’s a gorgeous 1913 theatre, with seating on three levels — so Disney had planted its feet at the very heart of Times Square.

In 1999, they moved it across the road to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on w46th Street, where it would run for another eight of its thirteen year Broadway run. There it rubbed shoulders, literally, with a tiny theatre of another stripe entirely — the Gaiety Male Burlesque, a gay strip club cited above New York’s last surviving branch of the diner chain Howard Johson’s on the ground floor, until both were shut in 2005, with the building subsequently demolished (The site is now occupied by a sleek new glass building housing a branch of American Eagle Outfitters).

I am lingering on this bit of Broadway history as for many years, from 1983 when I visited it on my first-ever visit to New York to 2005, the Gaiety was one of my favourite post-theatre show entertainments, where for just $10 or $15 admission you could watch lithe young men (often visiting from Canada, which has a big community of male strippers drawn from Montreal’s Campus club that’s still in existence there) stripping for a living.

Though it wasn’t officially on the menu since that would have been facilitating prostitution, all were available for private hire after their shows, at the nearby hotels they had rooms at; indeed, when I first started going there, they were available to hire on the premises, and would take their customers to a private area beside the stage.

All of this, of course, hardly belongs in a world of Disneyfication, and it always struck me as incredible that the Gaiety survived as long as it did, with audiences for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST next door rubbing shoulders with the beauties appearing on the stage upstairs next door and some of the beasts who made up the Giety’s primary audience.

But Disney were nothing if not bold in pushing the envelope in gentrification, bringing their second musical THE LION KING in 1997 to a theatre they themselves lavishly refurbished, the New Amsterdam, on a stretch of West 42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue that had, from the 70s to the early-90s,seen its grand old theatres turned into shabby porn palaces. 

Other theatres subsequently joined it in re-opening their doors to legitimate entertainment, including the New Victory across the street and Selwyn (now the American Airlines, run by Roundabout Theatre Company), as well as Garth Drabinksy’s brand-new Ford Center for the Performing Arts (created in 1998 out of merging two old theatres, the Apollo and Lyric that stood on the site) that has since gone through various names — and owners — to become the Lyric as it is now is, and owned by UK theatre owners Ambassador Theatre Group.

Disney would subsequently move THE LION KING out of the New Amsterdam to the Minskoff (where it is still running today), replacing it first with MARY POPPINS and then ALADDIN (also still running today).

These titles would form the core repertoire of DIsney Theatrical, though it has not been all plain sailing for the entertainment behemoth. Less successful were attempts to bring THE LITTLE MERMAID and TARZAN to Broadway, and more recently FROZEN became an early victim of the pandemic; it was too soon into its run to have fully established its presence when the pandemic arrived, and Disney soon announced they were closing it down and would not be bringing it back when Broadway returned. Instead, it transferred to London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane last year, as its first tenant after its lavish refurbishment, and has now settled into an enduring run here instead. 

Meanwhile, with THE LION KING also still running at London’s Lyceum Theatre, Disney have now brought their first title BEAUTY AND THE BEAST full circle back to London (where it previously played at the Dominion Theatre at Tottenham Court Road in 1997, and won the Olivier for Best Musical) but only for a limited summer season to the London Palladium as part of a national tour of an entirely revamped version of the original production, where it opened last night.

It is overseen by director/choreographer Matt West, who was originally only the choreographer while Robert Jess Roth directed; the latter was due to reprise his duties this time around, but was summarily cancelled when a private email he was writing to disgraced producer Scott Rudin was seen by a fellow passenger on a plane and reported to the media, in which he had unwisely endorsed the bullying of another Broadway actor.

It’s not the only example of changing — and charged — political and sexual currents that has blighted the production. When the production originally premiered in Bristol last year, the Beast was played by Emmanuel Kojo, but he was released from his contract after an investigation was held about his behaviour with other cast members backstage that they had complained about.  (Kojo has recently been vigorously denying the accusations on Instagram).

But away from the controversies, the brilliance of this revival is that it’s not a mere replica of the original, but a bold re-imagination employing new technology and brilliantly diverse casting, that recasts it — in every sense — for today.

The amazing Shaq Taylor delivers a show stopping “If I Can’t Love Her” as the Beast that’s one of the most powerful numbers on any London stage right now; his Belle (the Beauty of the title) is also a performer of colour, Courtney Stapleton, to prove that not all Disney princesses need be cookie-cutter white. 

There’s plenty of traditional casting, to be sure, too (including Angela Lansbury, the film’s original Mrs Potts, who voices the prologue narration), with X-Factor winner Sam Bailey now delivering the title song (‘Tale as old as Time’) as Mrs Potts, a lavishly biceped Tom Senior as Gaston (who seems to be auditioning to play Popeye next, pictured above left with Courtney  Stapleton’s Belle), the delightful Nigel Richards as Cogsworth, and former Mary Poppins leading man Gavin Lee (who originated the role of Bert in the West End and on Broadway) as a camp-as-Christmas Lumiere.

But Shaq Taylor’s Beast is the beating heart — in every sense — of a production that also seeks to provide sensory overload at other times, especially in “Be My Guest” which is an MGM movie spectacle made flesh and blood. It’s like the annual Michael Harrison Christmas pantomime here has arrived early.

Talking of Michael Harrison — the prolific producer recently took a stage version of another Disney property, BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, on a UK tour that may yet land in the West End; while yet another independent production company — Runaway Entertainment, run by Tristan Baker and Charlie Parsons — are bringing a re-imagined, immersive version of Disney’s 2012 Broadway version of NEWSIES to the Troubadour at Wembley Park from November 29, keeping the Disney flag flying high.
Meanwhile, my return yesterday to MARY POPPINS was in a different league: maybe it’s having Cameron Mackintosh as co-producer with Disney that makes it more story and character driven, with its haunting back story of a damaged family being put back together by an eccentric nanny.

If there are elements of this show that feel old-fashioned and “period”, there’s a stunning contemporary edge to the vibrantly alive performances of Zizi Strallen (above left, stepping seamlessly into shoes once occupied in the West End and on Broadway by her older sister Scarlett Strallen) in the title role, newly joined by Louis Gaunt (above right) as Bert, temporarily taking over from Charlie Stemp as the latter leads Chichester’s new production of Crazy For You this month.

Gaunt matches her with effortless elan as a terrific dancer and brings an instinctive warmth to the stage. The choreography (by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear) creates dazzling number after number that includes an upside-down tap dance for Gaunt across the top of the proscenium arch, and a show stopping Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

SEE YOU ON MONDAY

I’ll be back here on Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends.

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