Does it even matter what I say about the return of NETworks' touring production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast? Little girls will still show up in Belle costumes and will look adorable, all the while quietly absorbing the message that, through the power of love, they can totally change that guy with the nasty temper. Adults will cheer its "Be Our Guest" cutlery kickline, and wake up the next morning with its chorus still ringing through their skulls, trapped like Belle, while somewhere out there, a better, more innovative family musical withers and dies for lack of funding.
With a 13-year Broadway stint and more than 35 million already served (to say nothing of the movie tickets, videos, DVD and, downloads purchased since the film's 1991 debut), Beauty and the Beast certainly has its fans. This production uses all the show's Alan Menken/Howard Ashman/Tim Rice original music and Linda Woolverton's uninspired filler of a script. It also reunites the show's original crew, from director Rob Roth to choreographer Matt West, costumer Ann Hould-Ward, lighting designer Natasha Katz - who, in reworking her design for the tour, decided muddy means moody - and set designer Stanley Meyer. And Meyer's designs may well be the production's true stars.
With a huge tangle of acanthus framing the stage, and French provincial folk art throughout, Beauty and the Beast, at the very least, offers copious visual distractions. And yet, this production remains such a joyless and cynical affair. Belle, unlike every other woman in town, picks up a book and spurns villain Gaston. Gaston, during the tavern stomper "Gaston," fawned over and felt up by all those illiterate hussies, gay-bashes his hanger-on Lefou for laughs. Each plot point arrives via sledgehammer, with delivery as mechanical as a Disney World animatronic attraction. The real prisoner here isn't Belle, but rather the stone sentries cribbed from Jean Cocteau's gorgeous, haunting, blissfully quiet film La Belle et La Bete.
This time around, the production's supporting cast truly supports its principals. Hilary Maiberger's Belle, while well-tuned in song, muffles Woolverton's dialogue (which may be for the best), but Stephanie Moskal's operatic diva Babette adds comic relief and vocal chops. Meanwhile, Kristin Stewart's Mrs. Potts allows for understated emotion, some actual beauty, among director Roth's beastly demand for frenzied, notice-me performances.
Through Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.
Information: 215-731-3333 or kimmelcenter.org