Rehearsals of Eastern Mennonite University’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” are in full swing. For a complicated scene change, actors push a steep staircase, large table and oversized chairs on stage. Director Justin Poole‘s choreographed movements create the illusion the set pieces are dancing as they pass one another ever so closely. Before another scene, actors wait for their cue from musical director James Richardson before making entrances with over-sized forks and plates, which sway and twirl to the score of “Be Our Guest.”
“While actors in dark clothes manipulate the props and set pieces under black light, the audience sees the effects created right before their eyes,” said Poole, assistant professor of theater. “This production focuses on the joy of storytelling. It relies on our preexisting knowledge of Disney’s magical formulas, taking the musical in unexpected directions while remaining faithful to the script.”
Performances are scheduled in the Main Stage Theater March 22, 28, 29 and 30 at 7 p.m.; March 23 and 24 at 3 p.m.; and March 26 at 10 a.m. The performance is approximately 2.5 hours, with intermission.
Disney’s film “Beauty and the Beast” is a favorite of Poole’s and his three children, he said. Attempting a production of the Broadway musical based on the 1991 film wasn’t in his plans until Braydon Hoover, associate director of development who has been known to “trod the boards” one or two times, made the suggestion.
However, mounting an original Broadway Disney musical at a small liberal arts college takes some innovative solutions.
“We are using found objects and recycled materials to create the props, costumes and set pieces,” Poole said. Cast and crew would also need to let go “of our expectations of what a Disney show should look like.”
Poole recruited faculty and students from other departments. Anna Westfall, assistant professor of art, designed the production’s shadow puppets. Westfall has worked on costumes and props for other theater productions, she said. “However, I have never made shadow puppets. My past designs were sculptural, so this process was new to me.”
Her shadow puppet creations include three humans, a beast, a tree, an interior of a castle, and several wolves. “I attempted to keep my designs simple so that people would recognize the story,” Westfall said.
Esther Tian, associate professor and director of EMU’s engineering program, and the first-year engineering class worked with theater tech director Shannon Dove on set design and construction.
“This production requires a flexible, fast-moving set,” Poole said. “Our engineering students have delivered something fitting and unique.”
Poole also sought out sophomore Freddie Monahan, member of the student art club, to build what he praised as “visually interesting and user-friendly” props.
Cast includes community members
In addition to EMU’s actors, Poole cast students from Eastern Mennonite High School, Waterman Elementary and the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir, Poole said. “It truly takes a village, or a community, to create a theater production.”
Junior Gwen Mallow, an secondary English education major, is Poole’s assistant director. One of her duties is working with stage manager Amber Hooper “trying to make sure that everyone is safe and happy,” Mallow said. “It is really fun having students from both EMHS and other elementary schools in the area. The kids are kind, enthusiastic and natural actors.”
Mallow also leads sectional rehearsals when needed and takes down Poole’s notes to keep rehearsals running smoothly without stopping. “I also take over sectional rehearsals when needed,” she said, “but mostly I’m providing a second opinion when Justin is unsure about an aesthetic choice.”
First year peace and development major Elizabeth Eby was cast as the lead character, Belle. Eby said that as a child, she looked up to the character of Belle for her kindness and strength. “It’s also great how strong and independent she is.”
Eby shares Belle’s love for books, but believes to develop the character fully, their differences need to be included. “Physicality has been really helpful in doing that as I try to walk like a Disney princess,” Eby said. “I also just say my lines in different voices until I think something works for the character, rather than how I normally speak.”
With all these contributions and collaborations from the EMU community and beyond, Poole is looking forward to opening night. Bringing together veteran actors and children in their first productions with engineering students and artists working in new media, the collaborative effort is symbolic of his vision of theater’s creative potential.
“I like the idea of EMU theater being a place where people of all ages can gather and enjoy a great production as a community,” he said. “This show fits that bill. I hope to do more productions that have this family appeal. It also resonates with the students, who grew up on the original film.”
There is already a great response to the show, he added – and tickets are going fast!
Reserved tickets are $15 for adults ($17 at the door), $12 for faculty/staff, seniors and non-EMU students ($14 at the door), and $6 for EMU and Bridgewater College students. Tickets are available at EMU’s Box Office, located in the University Commons. Box office hours are Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. or call 540-432-4582.
BELLE: Elizabeth Eby, first-year, Goshen, Indiana
BEAST: Andrew Stoltzfus, first-year, Harrisonburg, Virginia
GASTON: Isaac Longacre, first-year, Quakertown, Pennsylvania
LEFOU: Richard Vo, junior, Front Royal, Virginia
COGSWORTH/CHORUS: Avery Trinh, first-year, Columbia, Maryland
LUMIERE/CHORUS: Joseph Seitz, first-year, Harrisonburg, Virginia
MRS. POTTS/CHORUS: Sarah Ressler, sophomore, Kidron, Ohio
CHIP/CHORUS: Anna Ressler, junior, Kidron, Ohio
BABETTE: Mary Fairfield, community student, Staunton, Virginia
MADAME DE LA GRAND BOUCHE/CHORUS: Leah Wenger, junior, Harrisonburg, Virginia
MAURICE/CHORUS: Lucas Wenger, sophomore, Harrisonburg, Virginia
MONSIEUR D’ARQUE/CHORUS: Tyler Goss, graduate student, Mechanicsville, Virginia
CHORUS: Ariel Barbosa, junior, Baltimore, Maryland; Emily Bennett, first-year, Landsdale, Pennsylvania; Dan Hackman, junior, Lansdale, Pennsylvania; Jackie Hieber, graduate student, Bridgewater, Virginia; Ross Kirkdorffer, first-year, Harrisonburg, Virginia; Stephanie Kniss, first-year, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; Alexa Lahr, first-year, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Anali Martin, junior, Cary, North Carolina; Johnny G Prioleau III, junior, Chesterfield, Virginia; MacRae Richardson, community student, Dayton, Virginia; Partha Roy, first-year, Takoma Park, Maryland; Jay Sheppard, first-year, Beaverdam, Virginia
CHILDREN’S CHORUS: Zevvi Misterka, Virginia Natale, Vienna Poole, George Richardson, Jack Richardson, Katherine Richardson, Kezia Wettig, Lewis Yoder.
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Gwen Mallow, junior, Quicksburg, Virginia
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER: Jareya Harder, first-year, Mountain Lake, Minnesota
STAGE MANAGER: Amber Hooper, junior, Mechanicsville, Virginia
PROPS MANAGER: Freddie Monahan, sophomore, Richmond, Virginia
SOUND BOARD OPERATOR, PROPS MANAGER & HAIR/MAKE-UP ASST: Ezrionna Prioleau, graduate student, Chesterfield, Virginia
COSTUME LOFT MANAGER & HAIR/MAKE UP DESIGNER: Hailey Holcomb, graduate student, Woodbridge, Va.
DIRECTOR and PRODUCER: Justin Poole
MUSICAL DIRECTOR: James Richardson
PIANIST: Jim Clemens
TECHNICAL DIRECTOR & SET DESIGNER: Shannon Dove
FIRST-YEAR ENGINEERING STUDENT DESIGNERS: Wade Banks, Jonas Beachy, Catherine Hammond, Jacob Horsley, Malachi Malone, Maarten McDonald, Andrew Schunn, Joshua Sheppard, Laura Troyer, Tessa Waidelich, Jason Wong
COSTUME DESIGNER: Rachel E. Herrick
DANCE CHOREOGRAPHER: Jerusha “Ellie” de Waal
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Robert Weaver
SHADOW PUPPET DESIGNER: Anna Westfall