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'Beauty and the Beast' proves its staying power

Disney production returns for third run at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

January 09, 2014|By Michael Miller
  • Darick Pead as Beast and Hilary Maiberger as Belle star in "Beauty and the Beast."
Darick Pead as Beast and Hilary Maiberger as Belle star… (Amy Boyle )

Twenty years ago, an experimental show by a team with minimal Broadway experience made the trek to New York after a trial run in Houston.

Pundits expressed doubt about whether the risk would pay off, and when the show finally opened, it got a drubbing from critics, who called it "a gigantic kiddie show" and "hardly a triumph of art."

Fittingly, though, the production was Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" — a story whose message is that appearances can deceive. And as the musical prepares to open Tuesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, one of its creators thinks back on those early reactions with a smile.

"Now, we get nothing but glowing reviews," said choreographer Matt West, who crafted the 1994 production with two colleagues and reunited with them to work on the current tour. "It was a little bit of hatred and a little bit of anxiety, I think, from the Broadway community about corporate America coming in. It was the first; we were the first."

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Obviously, they weren't the last, as Disney went on to stage "The Lion King," "Newsies" and other productions in the last two decades. But when the company sought to make its Broadway debut, some in the industry wondered if enough ticket-buyers would shell out for a production that they already owned on video. The Los Angeles Times quoted Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg as saying, "It's hard to know how the New York audiences will respond" as the production departed Texas.

Flash forward 20 years, and "Beauty" ranks as the eighth-longest-running show in Broadway history, having tallied 5,461 performances between 1994 and 2007. And it's a tried-and-true property at Segerstrom as well — the latest run is its third at the Costa Mesa venue, following others in 2000 and 2010.

"This is a show for all ages, and it contains the ideal elements of a beautiful, romantic and happily-ever-after story complete with hit songs, beloved characters and plenty of adventure," Center President Terry Dwyer said in an email. "It tells a feel-good story from start to finish and you can't beat that."

When Disney's film version of "Beauty" came out in 1991, it became the first animated feature to score a Best Picture Oscar nomination. It was also a box-office smash — and it was the public response above all that led Disney to think about a stage version, according to West.

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