When Disney's animated film of "Beauty and the Beast" came out in 1991, it was proclaimed by the New York Times theatre critic to be the best musical of the year. The combination of Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken's iconic score and Linda Woolverton's screenplay gave the film a wide appeal. So it's not surprising that a stage version followed fairly quickly, with productions round the world. Ashman's passing meant that the additional songs had Tim Rice lyrics instead (Tim Rice is never a bad choice of alternate lyricist), but the fundamentals of the score and the script remained - a slowburning romance as a smart heroine warms the chilled heart of her not-so-ogre-ish captor.
Ickle Pickle's production captures much of the charm of the material - the Belconnen Community Theatre isn't the biggest stage and it's clearly being done on a smaller budget, but by and large this is a production that's made wise choices. Kaitlyn Nihill's Belle is our Disney Princess made flesh - perfectly pretty, smart, courageous and compassionate. Adam Salter's Beast builds in effect - initially not much more than a gruff growling presence, but as the story develops, the beastly facade drops away and we see his vulnerability and deep sorrow. The various household servants-turned-furniture are a highlight - Pip Carroll's uberFrench Lumiere is playful, lusty and ever-genial, Patrick Galen-Mules' Cogsworth is foppish, snobbish and thoroughly ridiculous in the best way possible, Bojana Kos is a flirty, witty delight as Babbette, and Amy Jenkins is warmly motherly as Mrs Potts. On the villianous side, Liam Jones has the buff buffoonery and brutal over-egotistical Gaston down to a T, and Lachlan Burke's toadyish Lefou is as close as a human being can be to becoming a cartoon character - his slapstick physicality is constantly delightful. Josh Kirk's D'ARque has to be pointed out as being incredibly sinister for his brief appearance onstage.
Jordan Best's direction captures all the highpoints - the humour is delightfully silly while the romance warms the heart. Steve Galinec and Anita Davenport's set is simple but effective in giving us grand storybook panoramas, while Mim Miley-Read's costumes are effective and clever (and in the climactic dance between Belle and Beast, hit that "just like the movie" spot effectively). If you're going to do your music through sequenced keyboards rather than by having an orchestra (and in the BElconnnen Community Theatre, squeezing an orchestra in is unlikely), Susan Davenport's arrangements are as effective as you're going to get, and she also gets strong voices out of her cast (although the sound mix early on is a little too heavy on the keyboards at the expense of the unmiked cast). Jodi Hammond gets good choreographic effects out of the cast - the all-in joy of "Gaston" and the climactic battle sequence being the highlights.
In short, this is highly effective theatre for anybody who likes a soulful romance mixed with some wild comedy and some iconic songs. There's still a few performances before this closes at the end of the week, so if you're wondering .. yep, it's definately worth the trip.
(Edit: Apologies to Kaitlin Nihill, whose first name was mistyped in an earlier version of this review!)