If you said that “Beauty and the Beast” saved the Walt Disney Co., not too many people could put up a strong argument.
You could say that it’s one of the most popular and acclaimed musicals of all time, and that it revolutionized Broadway and Americana musical theater, and no one could argue at all.
The classic musical, based on a classic animated feature that was based on a classic French fairy tale, is the next mainstage musical from the Manatee Players. It opens Thursday at Stone Hall in the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
The stage musical first hit Broadway in 1994. It was based on Disney’s hit animated film from three years before, with songs by a fairly obscure composer named Alan Menken.
Adapting a cartoon into a Broadway show was not something that was often done and Disney had never ventured on to Broadway. But “Beauty and the Beast” was the surprise hit of the season. It led to a constant stream of other Disney musicals based on the studio’s animated features: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Tarzan,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and, most notable “The Lion King.” (A live-action feature film version of “Beauty and the Beast” will hit big screens in March.)
There are significant differences between the stage version of “Beauty” and the film — including many more songs — and the Manatee Players version takes a different tone than the Broadway and touring versions of the stage musical.
“We’ve kind of made it a little more real, more personal, a little less like a cartoon,” said Dave Downer, who plays the Beast.
The production is directed by Cory Boyas, who was the dance captain for the Broadway production.
There’s a practical reason, as well as an artistic one, Boyas said, for emphasizing the human elements of the show, even though its characters include a candelabra, a clock and a teapot: The Manatee Players production doesn’t have the multi-million-dollar budget of the Broadway version. Still, Caleb Carrier’s set and Joseph Oshry’s lighting should make it a visual treat.
The other title role role, Belle, is taken by Melanie Bierweiler, whose last Manatee Players role was Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It’s a a role she’s always wanted to play, for more reasons than such great songs as “Belle” and “A Change in Me.” The character, who dreams of a less mundane life, is one that most of us can relate to, and people can rejoice when her dream becomes real, she said.
“It’s young and fresh and she’s full of mystery, but she knows exactly what she wants,” Bierweiler said. “She wants these far-off-places and magic spells and sword fights. What she doesn’t realize is that’s all going to happen. All of her dreams and her happily-ever afters are going to come true in the least expected way.”
Details: Dec. 1-18, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $27-$37. 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.