Animal magnetism

Although the song’s lyrics declare that the tale is “as old as time,” the love-conquers-all story of Beauty and the Beast hasn’t actually been around forever. Try since the mid-18th century. And likely it was Disney’s 1991 animated-film version—later produced as a Broadway musical—that catapulted the story from quaint folk tale to household name.

More than a song and dance: Dysfunctional romantic relationships, a father selling out his daughter to a monster man with self-esteem issues and a castle full of dancing housewares — who says Disney isn’t edgy? photo by Jonathan Welch

Which is one reason Asheville Community Theatre has added the show to its fall roster.

“So many people are familiar with the animated movie or have seen the live show on Broadway or elsewhere, and there’s a certain degree of grandness that comes with this show,” explains ACT Program Director Jenny Bunn.

In fact, ACT has upped that grandness quotient with improvements to the theater, now in its 62nd year. There’s a new stage curtain, lighting board and sound-operating system, as well as ongoing renovations to the lobby. Add to that a lavish set, the largest cast the theater has seen and a Disney-envisioned show, and audiences will be sure to notice they’re a long way from Asheville’s typically edgy, black-box offerings.

“With so many people moving to Asheville from the Midwest and Northeast, it’s in their theater vocabulary,” Production Director Christopher Lynn says of Beast. He adds that it’s a story to which children (and their families) are drawn, which means the ACT performance has to follow the Disney performance to the letter.

“You want children to relate to the show and not be surprised, complaining, ‘That’s not how the Beast looks,’” Lynn explains. “You want to give them a tried and true scripted show.”

Though Beast doesn’t enjoy the cult status of a certain boy-magician in training, the show’s popularity is such that Disney is finally ending its 13-year Broadway run to make room for the musical version of The Little Mermaid—after all, fairy-tale fans shouldn’t have to choose between family-friendly happily-ever-afters.

Still, even as Beast goes off-Broadway, no one could say the tale almost as old as time didn’t pave the way for successful folklore-to-film- to-stage transitions. In 1992, Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar. Its list of accolades includes a Theatre World Award and a Tony for best costume design. The Broadway show also proved to be a star vehicle, boasting Deborah (formerly known as Debbie) Gibson as Belle in 1997; the following year, Toni Braxton was the first African-American in that starring role. Über-good guy Donny Osmond played the villain Gaston in 2006.

“It’s such a strong story that people love it no matter what,” Lynn notes. Stars or amateurs, Disney or Brothers Grimm.

The fable is that of a merchant who, believing his ship has come in, sets off to find his fortune. When the ship fails to appear, he gets lost on the way home and wanders into a hidden castle. There, he’s captured by the Beast, a foul-tempered enchanted prince. The merchant’s life is spared in exchange for his daughter, Belle, who takes his place as the Beast’s prisoner. Belle, a brainy misfit in the village, soon finds a niche for herself reading and philosophizing with the Beast. Ultimately, it’s her love that sets him free from his curse.

“When it was put on Broadway, they didn’t tamper with it much,” Lynn notes, explaining that the premise simply works. “Thematically, the story is not just about beauty within. Because the beast is such a jerk, it’s more about him finding his own soul. It’s not the theme you’d expect.”

In fact, despite the departure from local theater’s grittier fare, Lynn asserts that Beast “has got edge.”

ACT presents Beauty and the Beast Friday, Sept. 14, through Sunday, Sept. 30. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. $25/adults, $22/seniors, $12/children. 254-1320.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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