Enchanting in every way *****
In late January 2022, Disneybrit was invited to attend a press evening at the 100th performance of the all new Beauty and the Beast musical at the Sunderland Empire. This is the latest stop on the current UK and Ireland tour of the show, and is a new production which reunites members of the original Broadway creative team including director and choreographer Matt West, composer Alan Menken, lyricist Tim Rice, bookwriter Linda Woolverton, scenic designer Stan Meyer, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and lighting designer Natasha Katz.
It really is a tale as old as time (so I won’t recap the plot as I’m sure we’ve all seen at least one version of the film!) and this musical has been around in various different formats since 1994, but this new version features impressive new stage designs and state of the art technology, bringing the story to life in imaginative ways that I certainly haven’t seen before.
The story is of course, based on the 1991 classic animated Disney film that we all know and love, with some of the flair and extravagance of the live action movie thrown in for good measure. It hits the mark in a way the live action movie never could though, with a range of special effects and magical touches that draw the audience in and add a bit of sparkle that you can only really find on the stage.
The show features all of the classic songs from the animated film, with the addition of several songs exclusive to the stage musical version, including Change in Me, If I Can’t Love Her and Home, as well as Human Again which was originally part of the film but later cut. The score is the thing that really sets the tone for this show, with the old familiar songs blending beautifully into the new ones and always driving the story forward. One of the things that has been highlighted as a change in this version of the show, is the way the music has been refreshed with new choreography from the original choreographer Matt West. While I haven’t seen the old version, I can say that the choreography in the new version is extremely impressive – most notably in Gaston and Be Our Guest.
Be Our Guest is the undeniable highlight of the show, featuring a brand new tap dance which was created especially for Gavin Lee (who plays Lumiere), who is recognised as one of the greatest tappers on either side of the Atlantic. The staging and lighting in this section of the show is truly spectacular – every time you think it can’t get any bigger or brighter it does just that. There’s so much to take in and I think would take several viewings to truly appreciate everything that is happening on that stage in this number. It manages to incorporate all of the most beautiful parts of that scene in the film, but in real life – right in front of you. It’s glitzy and garish and wonderful.
Another highlight for me, was the Gaston scene in the tavern – it’s another number which includes the whole ensemble and it gives Tom Senior as Gaston a real chance to shine. He’s perfect for the role and carries it off so well, striking the perfect balance between a treacherous villain and a guy you can’t help but quite like. I really felt for him when it came to the final bows, as the crowd seemed to forget they weren’t at a pantomime and booed him (good naturedly of course), when he actually deserved an enormous cheer. He played his part to perfection and he was one of the stand out stars of the show for me. I gave him an extra big cheer to make up for the panto crowd – I hope he heard.
Sam Bailey, 2013 winner of X Factor was superb as Mrs Potts, capturing the motherly warmth of Angela Lansbury’s version perfectly, while still managing to show off her pitch perfect vocals. I really enjoyed watching her move around the stage and thought that her chemistry with the other enchanted household items was really strong.
Everyone’s favourite duo Lumiere and Cogsworth are just as charming in this adaptation, bouncing off one another perfectly. Lumiere is the perfect camp Casanova and had the audience laughing throughout with his extravagant flourishes, as he lit the real flames on his candles at every opportune moment. Cogsworth is the opposite – uptight and anxious, the perfect antithesis to Lumiere. As a pair they are greatly entertaining – when you add Mrs Potts, Babette and Madame into the on stage mix, it’s just utterly charming.
At this point I should mention the absolutely amazing job that the swings/understudies did in this performance. We actually had 3 swings performing this day with Grace Swaby stepping into Belle’s shoes, Thomas Lee-Kidd taking on Cogsworth and Liam Buckland covering Le Fou. All 3 did an exceptional job and were faultless in their performances. Swings often get a really hard time but they deserve all the love, as their job is extra difficult and they always seem to manage to step up to the challenge when needed. These 3 certainly did.
The title characters were flawless in their performance – Grace Swaby was delightful and really likeable as Belle and Alyn Hawke as Beast was charming and funny as well as menacing and scary. I loved watching them. The ballroom scene was as expected, absolutely stunning to watch. Beast’s transformation in the finale was extremely clever (I’m still not completely sure how they did it) and I love that they found a way to recreate that classic moment from the film so perfectly in real life.
The thing that really sets this show apart from other shows I’ve seen, is the use of technology and lighting design to enhance the physical sets on the stage. The sets themselves are beautiful, but the use of digital projections and lighting effects really elevate this and transport you out of the theatre and into 18th century rural France. Scenes such as the wolf attacks become immersive and potentially quite frightening for young children. The castle glistens and reveals more of itself as the show goes on, with sets moving and projections changing as we move around the west wing, the library, the ballroom and the dining room. The transitions between scenes are seamless and we are transported from Belle’s rural village, through the woods, to Beast’s enchanted castle and back again with clever use of lighting and projections. It’s really beautiful. It’s a version of the show that couldn’t have existed in 1994, but I’m so glad can exist now.
The costumes too add a sense of grandeur to the show. The details on these costumes are so precise. The audience audibly gasped when Belle appeared in her yellow ball gown, and with just cause. It’s everything you want it to be – it’s big, it’s sparkly and it looks fantastic twirling around the dancefloor. Lumiere’s real flame candles are a big highlight, and one which he uses to brilliant comic effect. Mrs Potts’ spout steams away merrily and Cogsworth really does look like an old carriage clock come to life. I particularly liked Madame’s working drawers and hidden vanity mirror! The costume for Chip is baffling, an optical illusion which cleverly disguises the actor’s body so he really does look like a teacup on a trolley (that you can see through – where is his body hidden?!). The costumes really do add to the overall atmosphere of the show, and I’m betting there are a tonne of details I missed the first time round.
There’s also real magic in this show, with a number of impressive illusions and tricks that leave you wondering “how did they do that?!”. Beast’s transformation is a notable one, but there are many examples scattered throughout. Some of them even happen subtly in the background – watch the enchanted rose to see how it slowly wilts in the background and then magically returns to full bloom when the spell is broken. I’ve seen other Disney shows which incorporate magic (Mickey and the Magician at Disneyland Paris being my favourite example), but Beauty and the Beast used magic in such clever and subtle ways – it was rarely flashy or extravagant but always precise, adding something to the story and giving the whole show an extra sprinkling of real Disney magic.
The lighting effects add to this magical atmosphere, with the whole mood of the theatre changing depending on which part of the performance we are at. There are strobe lighting effects used so this is something to be aware of before you go.
Even a small technical glitch near the end of the show (which required a short pause in proceedings to reset) couldn’t take the edge off this spectacular show which I am very much looking forward to seeing again next week.
It’s fantastic to see world class productions like this touring the UK, and wonderful to get to see them in Sunderland – the west end of the North East. Sunderland’s Empire theatre is the perfect setting for Beauty and the Beast with a rich red colour scheme throughout, sweeping staircases and beautiful gold embellishments at every corner. It’s like it was made to tell this story. As we were guests at this performance, we were presented with a red rose and a programme on arrival which was a really nice touch and a lovely souvenir. The theatre staff are clearly very excited to have Belle and co in town, and this really showed – the theatre was buzzing! It really was an enchanting evening, full of familiar characters, songs and dialogue, but with a good number of surprises sprinkled in for good measure.
Beauty and the Beast is a stunning production. The beautiful costumes, magical effects and incredible score make it an enchanting experience and a must see for all Disney fans, as a brand new way to experience the tale as old as time.
Beauty and the Beast is on at the Sunderland Empire until 19 February 2022. It will then move on to Birmingham, Manchester, London and Dublin.
Disneybrit was gifted tickets for this performance of Beauty and the Beast.