With a huge tangle of acanthus framing the stage, and French provincial folk art throughout, Beauty and the Beast, at the very least, offers copious visual distractions. And yet, this production remains such a joyless and cynical affair. Belle, unlike every other woman in town, picks up a book and spurns villain Gaston. Gaston, during the tavern stomper "Gaston," fawned over and felt up by all those illiterate hussies, gay-bashes his hanger-on Lefou for laughs. Each plot point arrives via sledgehammer, with delivery as mechanical as a Disney World animatronic attraction. The real prisoner here isn't Belle, but rather the stone sentries cribbed from Jean Cocteau's gorgeous, haunting, blissfully quiet film La Belle et La Bete.
This time around, the production's supporting cast truly supports its principals. Hilary Maiberger's Belle, while well-tuned in song, muffles Woolverton's dialogue (which may be for the best), but Stephanie Moskal's operatic diva Babette adds comic relief and vocal chops. Meanwhile, Kristin Stewart's Mrs. Potts allows for understated emotion, some actual beauty, among director Roth's beastly demand for frenzied, notice-me performances.
Through Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.