'Beauty and the Beast' proves its staying power

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."

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.

At the time of the film's release, West and two colleagues, director Rob Roth and scenic designer Stanley A. Meyer, were busy planning a stage musical version of "Mary Poppins." The three had helmed smaller productions at Disney theme parks, and Katzenberg and then-Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner gave them the blessing to look toward Broadway.

After "Beauty" opened in theaters, the studio suggested moving it ahead of "Poppins" but West and his team initially declined.

"We were so into this other musical — I mean, we were so far down the path — that we actually said, 'No, let's keep working on what we're working on,'" West said. "And Michael said, 'OK.' That was on a Friday, and on the next Tuesday, he called again and he said, 'We need to take a look at the grosses for 'Beauty and the Beast.' He kind of threw the gauntlet down."

Although West had danced on Broadway before, none of the show's three founders had overseen a production. They had the full support of Disney, though.

West said that when the show required a set of props too large to fit backstage, Eisner had an elevator built so the props could be kept under the floorboards and transported up.

The show had a successful trial run at the Theatre Under the Stars in Houston in 1993 before moving to the Palace Theatre, where it weathered pans from the New York Times and Newsday. The former, despite reservations, predicted that the musical would be "a whale of a tourist attraction" in a league with the Empire State Building and FAO Schwarz.

When the current "Beauty" tour began in 2010, Roth, Meyer and West came back on board, along with more than half a dozen other members of the original production team. Some aspects of the show have changed from the original, including the costumes of the characters, such as Mrs. Potts, who have been transformed into household appliances; their outer garb is slightly transparent, which West says underlines the musical's theme of seeing past exteriors.

The expanded scenery allowed for more elaborate production numbers, and West rethought some of the choreography. Still, he believes the vision he and his partners sketched out two decades ago — like the message of the story itself — remains intact.

"That message is universal and has remained the same for many, many years, and I think that's the heart," West said. "I think without that, all these other fun toys that you have today to work with mean nothing, really, if you don't have a good story."

If You Go

What: "Beauty and the Beast"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Starts at $29

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org

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