Could Belle in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” be subtextually Jewish? After all, Jews are “Am ha-Sefer” or “The People of the Book,” and Belle is a bookworm heroine.
In fact, like Yentl at the start of the Streisand film, she regularly visits her favorite place: the bookseller’s. Later, of course, the Beast will surprise Belle with the gift of his castle library, a present worth more to her than diamonds.
At the same time, it may be no accident that the late Jewish lyricist Howard Ashman (who collaborated with Tim Rice), writing to Jewish composer Alan Menken’s score, helped the playwright, Linda Woolverton, make Belle headstrong and book-smart. Ultimately – as the inspired current Wheelock Family Theatre revival richly demonstrates – “Beauty and the Beast’’ sings out a stirring celebration of inner beauty and being human.
In line with producing artistic director Linda Chin’s playbill reflections about a “shared experience,’’ director Jane Staab divides the opening exposition about the Young Prince’s misperception of the disguised enchantress – who turns him into the Beast – among a number of narrators. At the pivotal moment when he becomes human again, designer Franklin Meissner Jr. vividly highlights the changes with a brief light show that makes good use of the stained glass windows on James P. Byrne’s stunning castle set.
To her credit, Belle has no misperceptions about humanity or life. While desiring adventure, mystery, romance, happy endings, and “much more than this provincial life,’’ she remains a dutiful daughter and rejects the shallowness and abusiveness of her suitor Gaston.
By contrast, the Beast may be coarse and roar when angry, but not with a totally selfish agenda. Gradually he warms to Belle and her enlightening influence. As he appreciates the values represented by books and his own library, he delights in the story of King Arthur as she reads it to him. He eventually reclaims the inner nobility that he dishonored in mistreating the haggard older woman – the disguised enchantress – in his pre-Beast incarnation.
Justine Icy Moral captures all of Belle’s spirit as a caring daughter and self-empowered woman, yet never underplays her vulnerability. She brings convincing feeling to “No Matter What,’’ the moving duet with her loving father Maurice, played with unassuming virtuousness by Robert Saoud.
Jared Troilo (an actor proud of his paternal Jewish ancestry) catches the Beast’s complicated inner rage and his growing satisfaction in attempting to please Belle at the dinner table and other areas of their singular courtship. His plaintive first act closing solo, “If I Can’t Love Her,’’ is both powerfully delivered and heart-wrenchingly moving.
Mark Linehan finds both the buffoonery and the brutality of Gaston, and Gary Thomas Ng displays strong slapstick talent as his adoring sidekick, Lefou.
Young audience members cheer loudly as the Beast and Belle kiss. All theatergoers should celebrate Wheelock Family Theatre’s loving revival with its uncommon attention to the values related to books.
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” at the Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway, Boston, through March 4. For ticket information, call 617-879-2300 or visit wheelockfamilytheatre.org.