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Beauty and the Beast

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, at the Chicago Theatre. For Disney, the third dimension is the tricky part: the entertainment empire's life-size theatricalization of its sumptuous 1991 animated feature is a massive act of make-believe. The Beast's castle is a Gothic/baroque fantasy, and the enchanted objects--like clock man Cogsworth, human sconce Lumiere, and the acrobatic Doormat--seem to revel in the ingenuity and craftsmanship of their costumes."Be Our Guest" erupts with eye-popping spectacle, ornate utensils strutting like Follies girls, and the lush title song is complemented by gorgeous backdrops worthy of Maxfield Parrish.

Lavishness aside, Beauty and the Beast is a fast-moving old-fashioned musical fueled by a supple score by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman. And perversely or not, the elements that seem the most cartoonish prove the biggest crowd pleasers. As hammed up by Tony Lawson, Gaston is a pompous caricature who turns villain all too soon. Light-years from Cocteau's creation, who had mystery and majesty, Fred Inkley's Beast suggests arrested adolescence; Miss Manners is his guide to the "inner prince." Only Kim Huber's maternal and unashamedly literate Belle approaches adulthood.

The fairy tale offers a rich lesson in judging by appearances, yet everything here is appearance--sparkler showers, levitation tricks, storybook tableaux. Happily, there's enough heart and brain to make the magic matter.

--Lawrence Bommer

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