MILLBURN, NJ – It's a “Tale as Old as Time.”
Disney’s Beauty and The Beast, the musical that took Broadway by storm 24 years en route to a Tony Award and countless international, touring, regional and amateur productions is playing right here in Essex County.
The company, which includes nine Broadway stars and two Tony Award nominees, will be dazzling audiences at the Paper Mill Playhouse until July 3.
“This is an iconic tale,” Stacia Hernandez, who plays Mrs. Potts, said on Sunday after the show’s official opening. “It’s a tale as old as time. Its about seeing past people’s walls and making even more clear that we are all in this together.”
Hernandez portrayed Mrs. Potts in the Broadway company alongside production director Mark Hoebee, said she couldn’t pass on the opportunity to reprise her role in front of a home town crowd. And, while it took some time to get back into the mind of a teakettle, Hernandez still gets that ‘special’ feeling during the show’s title song.
“To sing the song that everybody is waiting to here and everyone knows is such an honor,” she said. “I sort of feel that I’m the soundtrack to Belle and Beast’s life. To get to do that every night is special.”
Hernandez’s “master,” The Beast, is portrayed by Broadway veteran Tally Sessions (Anastasia, War Paint, School of Rock).
While the original movie production focuses more on Belle’s transition from fearful prisoner to loving friend, the musical offers the Beast a chance to show who he really is throughout the show.
Nothing encapsulates the Beast’s true character more than his first act-closing ballad, “If I Can’t Love Her,” where audiences get an inside look into the depressing state of how one bad decision can potentially change your life forever.
However, the depressing nature of Beast’s first act scenes change almost immediately after the curtain goes up in the second act as he saves the runaway Belle from a pack of wolves. Belle then returns the favor by mending to his wounds. While the ensuing song “Something There” is often overlooked, the piece shows the change between two characters fearful of each other to two potential soulmates.
“The most fascinating thing about it is someone who has lost his humanity and is trying to remain,” Sessions said. “He’s inspired to do that by meeting someone that loves him for who he is and not what he looks like.”
The show’s other title character, Belle, is portrayed by Paper Mill veteran Belinda Allyn (West Side Story, Benny & Joan). While she had big shoes to fill, playing a role that Susan Egan was nominated for a Tony Award, Allyn said it came relatively easy because she always felt connected to the character from an early age.
“I was a big time bookworm when I was little,” Allyn said. “Actually, someone was saying how easy it is for me to be reading and walking at the same time, but I did that a lot as a kid. That’s what resonates with me, but, also the idea of feeling a little bit out of place but finding strength within that.”
Allyn's rendition of "Belle" gives the show life before the audience can even settle into their seats.
As the show progresses, Belle and Beast’s relationship is somewhat forced thanks to the loving actions of Beast’s castle staff: Mrs. Potts, Cogsworth (Kevin Ligon) and Lumiere (Gavin Lee).
While the trio’s playful banter about the right way to push the relationship forward offers Broadway-style comic relief, its Lumiere that takes this production from regional theater to Broadway quality, with the show stopping number, “Be Our Guest.”
Lee, who lives in Maplewood, recently finished playing the Grinch in the touring production of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and Broadway’s Spongebob Squarepants, where he played Squidward. However, his connection to Disney dates back to when he originated the role of Bert in Disney’s Mary Poppins in London and Broadway.
“Disney has a real plus that they have amazing source material that comes out of Disney Studios,” Lee said. “I bet any of the Disney cartoons can be made into a brilliant stage show. Tom Schumacher, who is the head of Disney Theatrical, is so good at bringing the right directors and the writers to adapt cartoons into a brilliant stage show.”
Lee’s “Be Our Guest,” which includes almost the entire company, is truly the show stopper that changed Broadway 24 years ago. This rendition proves just how far ahead of the game the Paper Mill Playhouse is compared to other productions of the show, including the touring version which played New Jersey four years ago.
Of course it wouldn’t be Disney without a villain - in the case of Beauty and the Beast, that villain is Gaston, the “guy that everyone in town admires” and his playful sidekick LeFou. Broadway vet Stephen Mark Lukas (Book of Morman) portrays the overzealous hunter, Gaston, whose own goal includes marrying the “most beautiful girl in the village.” Paper Mill veteran Kevin Curtis plays the sidekick who does nothing the entire show but seek Gaston’s true friendship.
Lukas and Curtis have the onstage camaraderie that the two roles need. Their company-wide musical number, “Gaston,” which is often times overlooked by audience members, is as much of a showstopper as Be Our Guest.
Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of Beauty and the Beast also includes Tony Award Nominee Joel Blum (Maurice), Jenelle Chu (Babette), Donna English (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Gianni David Faruolo (alternating Chip) and Union-native Antonio Watson (alternating Chip).
The ensemble cast includes Joe Bigelow, Monica Cioffi, Brittany Conigatti, Justin DeParis, Stephen DiBiase, Jennifer Evans, Annie Gagen, David Michael Garry, Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Leeds Hill, Brett Michael Lockley, Michael Milkanin, Corinne Munsch, Brett Pederson, Alexa Racioppi, Taylor Rosenberger, Molly Rushing, Bronwyn Tarboton, Matthew Vincent Taylor, and Cynthia Thorne.
The show continues in Millburn until July 3. There are a limited amount of tickets available. For more information, go to PaperMill.org.