One of the first visual effects in Imago Theatre’s new family-friendly Beauty and the Beast-inspired play La Belle is a Steamboat Willie throwback: Smokestacks bunch up and forcefully belch smoke in a way I can honestly say I’ve only ever seen in a cartoon. It sets the tone for a show that promises “animated effects every 30 seconds” and delivers, with puppetry, shadow play, quick-change costuming, hidden machinery, and all manner of light and sound manipulation.
The only two live actors onstage are Jim Vadala and Justine Davis. Vadala is Sam Stoker, a stoker (convenient) whiling away his lonely life in the belly of the steamship La Belle building automata to tell the story of Beauty and the Beast. Davis is Lady Rose, the socialite who finds herself thrown into Sam’s odd world during a dramatic storm.
This show is very clearly meant to appeal to kids, and Vadala and Davis blend child-friendly zaniness with enough cheek to get the odd laugh from adults. The performances feel referential at times, Vadala mugging adorably like a children’s show host with the sharp sadness of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, while Davis becomes the human equivalent a vintage Carol Kane-themed roller coaster. But these living, breathing bodies are often upstaged by their only slightly less articulated counterparts, a retinue of puppets ranging from blue fairies to wicked stepsisters to—for some reason—a bunch of monkeys. (Kids love monkeys.)
There are two puppeteers behind the scenes, and they’re good enough as to genuinely appear not to exist—the puppets often seem to be either alive or truly automated—but Vadala and Davis do a lot of the puppeteering themselves, as Sam and Rose grow closer through their mutual telling of the classic story.
The beautiful puppets are uniquely stylish, but perhaps take cues from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film version of La Belle et la Bête, still one of the most stunningly gorgeous of all fairy tale adaptations. Sam operates the Beast, often arguing with himself in gruff tones, and Davis voices Belle and various members of Belle’s family. There are songs too, and while Vadala’s lean toward the singalong, Davis is given more traditional fare, and has an impressive voice, capable of beautifully conveying the emotional states of various characters.
For the most part, the play strikes a good balance between content for kids and adults. Even when plot twists seem outlandish or the monkeys are back for no reason, one can’t help but simply marvel at the ingenuity of the effects. The show recalls Disney, Cocteau, and Chaplin—and only partly because it overtly tips its hat toward them. It also affects us with the same sublime inventiveness that has enchanted audiences since before Disney’s talking mouse, Cocteau’s camera tricks, Chaplin’s epic pratfalls—even before Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve first put La Belle et la Bête to paper in the 18th century—it’s a wonder, and that’s all we’ve ever wanted, no matter how old we’ve supposedly become.