This fairy tale needs little introduction although a few tweaks have been made to the film’s original script: a bad-tempered yet handsome prince refuses a beggar woman shelter in his luxurious castle. Unknown to him, she’s a witch who, furious, casts a spell to turn him into the ugliest creature in the world, bewitching his staff in the same instant.
In the meantime, a batty scientist sets off from his village for an invention convention when he stumbles across the same enchanted castle and is promptly captured. When the old man fails to return home, his saccharin-sweet daughter undertakes a one-woman search party and negotiates his release with the still bad-tempered but now heinously ugly prince. Ageing old dad regains his liberty, beautiful young maiden remains in his place. A deal, is after all, a deal. All that remains is for the Beast to prove he is capable of showing love — and the enchantment will vanish.
La bella y la bestia (Beauty and the Beast) is a firm part of fairy-tale history as a similar fable holds roots in Greek, Indian and African mythology. Ever since it was Disneyfied and turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1991, (a twentieth anniversary DVD is surely on the cards), it is a firm fixture in film collections everywhere, not least those of little girls’.
The musical love story’s return to the Teatro Citi and Buenos Aires after 12 years is being heralded as a fantastic return for local theatre, but the cynic and sodium lover within can’t help feeling that it may just all be a sugary singing and dancing overdose slathered in dulce de leche and topped with miniature merengues, ready to clog already weak arteries.
PROPPED UP. Two decades is a long time for any one, so it is safe to assume that La bella’s sets and props have come a long way since it first played in Argentina. In fact, one friend who saw it back in the day and went to last week’s première, said: “It blew my mind away. I’m thinking of suing my mother for having me 20 years too early.”
So armed with pretzels, ham sandwiches and a bag of salt to counteract any adverse reactions, it was off to the street that never used to sleep, Corrientes.
As expected, Beauty herself is all sugar and spice and all the nice things that little girls are made of. Neat and sweet, Magalí Sánchez Alleno, who was recently the first understudy as “Christine” in Phantom of the Opera at the same theatre, was innocence personified in a pale blue pinafore but with a voice more than capable of amplifying itself over the live orchestra.
The first indication that La bella is breathtaking is when dotty old dad Maurice trundles along, horns a-honking and lights a-flashing on his hand-built, four-wheeled, log-cutting steam engine. Full marks to the props department. Received by Bella (munch down a pretzel here), Maurice is preparing to enter his life’s work into a competition, and in his patchwork trousers and red scarf he sets off for his big moment.
But when night falls, Maurice is attacked by wolves who steal his scarf, and like the beggar woman before him, he ends up at the foreboding castle, looking for a bed.
Bella reaches the end of her tether when the village idiot and sidekick to her wannabe beau Gastón, Lefou, turns up with the neckwarmer wound tightly round his scrawny neck. And so she sets off to find her beloved father, who is being held prisoner at the castle by the disgusting and beastly prince.
His abode, an albatross around his hairy neck as he can’t leave it and will therefore never be able to find a belle to woo to break the spell, is fantastic. Nooks and crannies that reach up to the sky and crooked, chandelier-lit staircases form the monster’s lair, and the enormous cobwebs draped over the ceilings allow it abandoned authenticity. The ogreish Beast (Martín Ruiz) leaps about monkey style between balconies, roaring disapproval at his (dis)enchanted staff, Sra. Potts the tea pot (Marisol Otero, who played Bella in the same production 12 years ago), Dindon the clock (known as Cogsworth on the big screen and played here by Ricardo Bangueses) and Lumière the candelabra (Carlos Silveyra). This trio are absolutely hilarious: Dindon is the campest clock you could ever hope to tell the time with, French butler Lumière is witty, saucy and beguiling while here’s hoping Ms. Otero has the highest tier of health insurance available because her arm spout must surely ache after each performance.
Following Bella’s hostage release agreement and amid all the beastly bellowing comes a wonderfully comic scene. Rightly fed up, Bella refuses to come down to dinner. To get his way as usual and persuade her to join him, the Beast goes through the motions of commanding, (“no”), begging (“no”), grovelling (“no”) and is finally forced into courtesy, just about stuttering out the word “please”. (“No.”) Paw firmly down, the Beast flies off the handle and demands that she starve that night.
EAT ON YOUR FEET. But naughty Lumière disobeys the boss much to Dindon’s disdain and in the “Our Guest” scene, where the butler he lays out a sumptuous spread for Bella, is absolutely mind-blowing. This is musical theatre as it should be: releasing the imagination and taking it to a different planet, if not galaxy, with a dancing cake slice, a frolicking sugar pot, even a cavorting corkscrew. A cutlery set teams up with its fellow kitchen implements to rise up against the angry, ugly, vicious Beast who is being so horrid to Bella (munch down a pretzel here). I love it! With plates spinning and wine goblets dancing tipsily, this scene alone is the perfect antidote to glum autumnal nights, ever-increasing inflation, a global economic crisis and no payrise. With Lumière and the kitchen crew on her side, you know that it will all be alright on the night.
Beauty and her Beast are back. Back together, well, you’ll just have head to the street that never used to sleep to find that out. And please don’t wait another 12 years for the fabulous production to come back. Pretzels are not included.