Television

Disney’s theatrical production Beauty and the Beast makes an impressive debut

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MUMBAI: When the history of Indian theatre is written sometime in the future, historians will make references to the pre- and the post Beauty and the Beast era. The date: 21 October 2015 will be enshrined as the day that changed the Indian musical theatre world.  That was the day that Disney India had an exclusive premier of its one-year in production international theatrical musical.

It played to a packed house consisting of Bollywood stars, directors, producers, broadcasters, distributors and a select high net worth client list of Citibank credit cards (apparently it willingly shelled out Rs 5 crore plus to be associated with the musical) at the National Sports Club of India Dome  in Mumbai.

Disney India MD Siddharth Roy Kapur  was cock-a-hoop with delight about the response to the first performance. “We have made an impression on an audience consisting of entertainers, I think the rest of the journey is going to go well,” he said. “Disney International chairman Andy Bird responded to my wanting to bring Disney’s Theatrical Production to India with Beauty and the Beast. I thank him for that.”

Watching spell bound were film makers and artistes and industry barons like Subhash Ghai, Vishal Bhardwaj, Emraan Hashmi, Mini Mathur, Ashutosh Goawarikar, Kabir Khan, Vishal Bharadwaj, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Vidya Balan, Soha Ali Khan, Imtiaz Ali, Anurag Basu, Nikhil Advani,Ayan Mukherji, Rajkumar Hirani, Shabhani Azmi, Aditya Roy Kapur, Madhur Bandarkar,  Anil Thadani and Raveena Tandon, Manyata Dutt, Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala, Amol Gupte, Ramesh Taurani, Nikhil Meswani, Sudanshu Vats, Tarun Katiyal, among scores of others.

It’s not as if attempts at upping the ante for musical theatre have not been made in India before. We had the showman Alyque Padamsee period in the eighties during which shows like Evita (probably the longest running musical in India), Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Greased Lightning,  The Wiz, sold out  in venues like the NCPA, Sophia, Homi Bhabha Auditorium in Mumbai. Then in recent times his daughter Rael Padamsee has been behind the production of  The Sound of Music and Grease. But while their efforts are praiseworthy, they pale in comparison to the scale that Beauty and the Beast was mounted upon.

Estimates are that Disney India may have signed a cheque of Rs 22 crore for the production which will continue in Mumbai for 10 more shows till end this month. Delhi is slated to follow later. Most of the other Indian efforts at adaptations have budgets which are a fraction of that.

The “different international” experience commenced at the venue itself with clear signage directing the traffic to the red carpet. And there was Siddharth Roy Kapur to greet his guests along with international Disney executives. Once you got past the gates with your bar coded ticket giving you entry you walked into a spacious dome theatre constructed for the Beauty and the Beast.  Rows upon rows of seats gave it a seating capacity of about 2,000-2,500.

A half moon shaped lavish and large set (160 ft x 70 ft - normally used only for big budgeted televised awards shows) with ramps bisecting the front audience vertically and horizontally (giving it an H-shape) from those in the middle greeted the fans. Constructed by art director Varsha Jain at a cost of around Rs 1.80 crore, it is the centre-piece of Beauty and the Beast’s Indian production. It probably is the biggest stage ever constructed by Disney for the show anywhere in the world.  Then there is the attention to detail and quality that Varsha has put into the set. You are almost lulled into believing that you are in the village with its marketplace, its main street, the roadside café, the bakery, the vendors, where Belle lives in her small home with her father.

A few minutes later the stage transforms itself into the dark castle wherein resides the young prince who was cursed to be a beast on account of his arrogance with a beggar. From the dark exterior to a well lit dining room to the dungeon to the balcony to the porch the shifts happen quickly.

3D Projection mapping, LEDs and large curtains, focused lighting – every trick in the book has been used to make the transitions easy and seamless. Additionally the props too have a sense of realism about them as compared to the shoddy fare that we often see in use in Indian theatrical productions.

It obviously is director Vikranth Pawar ‘s (he of Jhumroo and Zangaroo fame) vision. And choreographer Terence Lewis has ridden with him and made use of every inch of the stage and beyond for the sequences during the play. And he has adapted the choreography including styles such as ballet, jazz, breakdance and even classical ballroom dance depending on the scene’s requirement.  One of the most memorable ones is the opening act  with the song “Belle” wherein there are more than 60 actors and dancers on stage and you can’t seem to get enough of any of them.  Overall the production has more than 250 dancers back stage through its 130 minute duration.

The musical  score  - like the original by Alan Menken  – by Leslie Lewis for the Indian edition is flawless. Recorded in Prague with a Philharmonic Orchestra and mastered in Los Angeles, it is  Lewis at his best, something that even Menken has acknowledged.

The costumes by Gavin Miguel – around 400 of them – for both the lead and support cast  again are a class apart and make the show probably the biggest costumed theatrical show in India so far. The impeccable make up and hair design by Pallavi Devika take us back to the time and the place of the fairy tale. Vocal trainer Suzanne D’Mello  is reported to have put her heart and soul into lifting the singing performances of the cast, and it shows for almost the entire duration of the show.

The technical production and direction are another highlight of the show and credit for that should go to Vikas and Vevek Menon (from Production Crew). Apparently, the lighting is being technically directed and programmed by foreign crew while it is being manned by Beckett.

Onto the cast. The deep, grain rich voice of Amitabh Bachchan as he introduces the long-loved fairy taile sets the tone for its quality. Meher Mistry as Belle fits  and plays her part to the T, effortlessly becoming self-assured, vulnerable, loving, distraught and then joyous as she progresses from her ennui with the boor Gaston to meeting up with the Beast and her disgust with him transforming into love. And her singing is near perfect throughout as she easily croons the demanding tracks with lyrics from famed writers such as Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.

Edwin Joseph essays the role of the Beast with finesse and a gentle touch. His agony at being trapped in an ugly body, his realization of his love for Belle, his heroic battle while saving Belle from the wolves, and then his joy at his transformation into a handsome young prince are emotion-filled scenes. The young 21 year older is someone we will hear a lot more of both for his acting and singing prowess. Veteran actor Bugs Bhargava as Cogsworth and Nichols Brown as Lumiere, Sanjiv Desai as Maurice, and the actors who play Lefou, Gaston, Mrs Potts, Ayudh Jatin Parikh (as Chip) deserve a mention for fabulous performances.

In summation,  Disney India’s Beauty and the Beast was made in India but better than world class. And that was echoed by almost all those who watched it to the end. Something that should warm the cockles of Narendra Modi’s heart.

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