Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
How do you bring new ideas to a familiar text as old as time, that has been told in multiple blockbuster iterations?
If the Young People’s Theatre‘s (YPT) new production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is any indication, you put it in the hands of director Allen MacInnis and his diverse team. And you let them have their way with it. The Disney songs, characters and dialogue are the same in this succinct 85-minute version for young audiences as in its animated, musical and live-action predecessors. Nonetheless, during our dinner table analysis after an afternoon matinee, my son had this revelation: “It’s like YPT took the Disney out of Beauty and the Beast.” This was not a diss – either to Disney or to YPT. It was a compliment that encapsulates this production’s accomplishment and appeal.
First, this YPT production distinguishes itself through its diverse casting. The 2017-2018 Syd & Shirley Banks Prize honoree Celine Tsai plays the title role of Belle, the brainy beauty mocked by her peers for preferring books over boys. Stewart Adam McKensy plays her counterpart, the prince who spurns a beggar woman’s request for help and is cursed into a Beast. Tsai and McKensy’s casting underscores the universality of the musical’s themes. This Beauty and her Beast’s experiences don’t come across as Euro-centric (unlike the France-set Disney films). They could be from anywhere (including diverse Toronto): two young people trying to discover who they are, what distinguishes them and what values define them.
On hearing that YPT was staging Beauty and the Beast, Mr McKensy was immediately attracted. “Once I found out YPT was doing this show, I knew I wanted to help in any way to tell this story,” he recalls. “I auditioned and was shocked when I booked the role of the Beast.” YPT audiences last saw Mr McKensy as the gentle, violin-playing Grasshopper in the 2015 production of James and the Giant Peach. His Beast is not massive, gruesome or growly-voiced. His understated performance will not frighten the youngest audiences. It will, however, prompt the older ones to reflect on what constitutes a beast. The clear suggestion here is that beastliness can hide, lurking in one’s behaviour, and thus more insidious than any outward “beastly” appearance.
Appearances can be deceiving, agrees Ms Tsai, and in more than one way: “The Beast isn’t as monstrous as he is misunderstood. When the Beast and Belle are able to see something in each other that no one else sees… that’s where meaningful connection begins.” Mr McKensy concurs, noting that “the theme for Young People’s Theatre this season is ‘Find Yourself,’ and Beauty and the Beast touches it directly. We see it in the journey of the main characters throughout the play and how people don’t see them for who they really are.”
Besides the casting, another clear departure from Disney (and one that young audience members remark on) is the omission of the classic yellow dress from the Disney animated feature. This is deliberate and symbolic, says Ms Tsai: “This is not the Disney Belle. This version highlights Belle’s strength, stubbornness, temper. She isn’t a victim of fate as much as a novice player in a game she’s discovering. She firmly makes her demands and sets her boundaries.”
Indeed, Tsai’s Belle displays a propriety-defying self-awareness in her exchanges with Gaston. The Disney Belle is unfailingly polite despite Gaston’s brutish, egomaniacal advances. While Gaston’s over-the-top conceit makes for good comic relief, Belle’s mannered rebuffs in the face of such aggressive pursuit spur a wincy discomfort. Not so in this production. Ms Tsai’s Belle is still polite to Gaston (here portrayed with He-Man gusto by Aaron Ferguson), but nuances her rebuttals with an undertone of exasperated sarcasm. She dishes it out and serves it back, with the merest of smirks. And never breaks her stride–or forgets her manners.
Mr McKensy also stresses that “Belle is a strong woman, and it is very apparent when the Beast grabs her, she chooses not to stay and leaves the castle.” As a captive in an enchanted castle, Belle’s emphatic defiance speaks volumes, whether she is denouncing Gaston’s pushiness, the Beast’s forcefulness, or any other attempt to control her. Watching the male characters’ aggression and its effect on Belle and her elderly father (Neil Foster) resonates keenly in the wake of the harassment scandals and gender disparity plaguing the entertainment industry today. This production invites adult audiences into its unexpectedly timely subtext.
And what about the children in the audience? “I think one amazing thing about performing for young people is that I don’t feel the need to convince them of anything,” Ms Tsai avers: “We can tell a story, and let them make their own connections with real life. Simply showing an example of how the female lead can be strong and willful allows viewers the space to take that in and consider for themselves the possibilities of gender roles in their relationships.”
The scene immediately following Belle’s departure yields an insightful moment for Ms Tsai: “The Beast comes out to the forest to fend off the wolves attacking Belle, despite her hurtful snubbing of him. That’s a meaningful moment to me,” she notes. “There are those magical times in life when someone offers an undeserved gift, mercy, kindness. Since we’ve started working on B & the B, I have noticed these undeserved moments in my life, and I’ve felt how they’ve transformed my connections.” Hopefully, such real-life connections will become evident for audience members watching the musical. Chief among them for Mr McKensy? Helping children see the consequences of making the wrong choice in life.
Of course, despite its weighty themes, YPT’s adaptation does not stint on the warm, feel-good charm that continues to make Beauty and the Beast a family favourite. There is just enough suggestion to prompt us to imagine the fantastic, and interpret the story through our own experiences: “We’re trusting our audiences to bring the magic through openness and imagination, and Sue LePage‘s set design, as well as Joanna Yu‘s costume design provide just enough structure for that,” observes Ms Tsai. This is a fairy tale, after all, so you can certainly expect plenty of magic, courtesy of LePage and Yu’s ingenuity. LePage has utilized every square inch of the stage area, from ceiling to floor, and has transformed it into a broody, stylized forest. Triangular pillars are trees that transform into various locations and settings. And the orchestra, led by Musical Director Diane Leah, is invisible, adding to the fairy-tale mystique. Finally, Yu’s costume designs are as suggestive as they are strategic. Many of the cast play multiple roles and make frequent wardrobe changes in the blink of an eye, making the 14-member ensemble seem much larger. And the clever ways that the Beast transforms — and Belle dons her gown — should be experienced, rather than explained.
One final note: the intricate staging, costuming and Dayna Tekatch‘s choreography synchronize to extraordinary effect in the signature number “Be Our Guest.” And though it’s not a number that Mr McKensy himself is in, he twice notes it as a production highlight during our exchange. “‘Be Our Guest’ is filled with so much excitement and dancing,” he marvels. “It is such a crazy, show-stopping number. I pretend I am in it backstage!”
So be their guest. In this Beauty and the Beast, there is definitely something here that wasn’t there before. It’s a refreshing blend of classic and contemporary: a thoughtful and thought-provoking toe-tapper that delivers the requisite happy ending without any sappy excess. Ms Tsai fervently hopes that in addition to enjoyment, the action on stage will catalyze conversations and connections among young people. “I love hearing young audience members vocally react to what’s happening on stage,” she enthuses, “and I hope they feel like the theatre is a safe place to be themselves.” “I just hope you have a wonderful time,” agrees Mr McKensy. “It is truly magical hearing the kids respond as they go through this journey with us. ”
From my theatre seat, I can agree that, yes, the children’s responses to the production are magical. I can also confirm that plenty of us grown-ups gladly surrender to that magic, too.
Rapid Round with Celine Tsai and Stewart Adam McKensy
1.What’s the best thing about performing for young people?
CT: Getting to directly address the audience is thrilling – looking young people in the eyes and inviting them to engage.
SAM: It is exciting yet scary because they will tell you in the moment if they are on this journey with you or not.
2. Who are you most excited to share the stage with?
CT: Our dedicated, generous crew – they are responsible for all the magic that happens, and they all look great in black.
SAM: Damien Atkins, who plays Lumiere.
3. What is your favourite musical (other than this one)?
CT: Atlantis, by Matthew Lee Robinson
SAM: Kinky Boots and Ragtime
4. What will we see you in next?
CT: A new TV show for kids, called Lorenzo!
SAM: I am off to The Globe theatre for their production of Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.
5. What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume?
CT: I make my own toothpaste, and I love social dancing and avocados. Follow me on instagram! @celinethetsai
SAM: I love to play dodgeball on my days off in a dodgeball league.
News You Can Use
What: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical; Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; Book by Linda Woolverton; Directed by Allen MacInnis
Cast: Damien Atkins (Lumiere), Aaron Ferguson (Gaston), Neil Foster (Maurice), Susan Henley (Mrs Potts), Phoebe Hu (Chip), Jacob MacInnis (LeFou), Stewart Adam McKensy (Beast), Dale R. Miller (Ensemble), Andrew Prashad (Cogsworth), Claire Rouleau (Ensemble), Emma Rudy (Babette), Zorana Sadiq (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Joel Schaefer (Monsieur D’Arque), Celine Tsai (Belle)
Creative Team: Musical Director: Diane Leah; Assistant Musical Director, Keyboard: Jeannie Wyse; Musician/ Percussion: Jamie Drake; Choreographer: Dayna Tekatch; Set Designer: Sue LePage; Costume Designer: Joanna Yu; Lighting Designer: Jason Hand; Sound Designer: Adam Harendorf; Assistant Director: Liz Pounsett; Stage Manager: Kate Sandeson; Assistant Stage Manager: Emilie Aubin; Apprentice Stage Manager: Kate Hennigar
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: Extended until January 7, 2018; running time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Young People’s Theatre, Mainstage, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON M5A 3Z4
Info and Tickets: YoungPeoplesTheatre.ca
Explore and Learn: Study Guide
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya