Among a plethora of things for which I am thankful today, near the top of the list is that last night’s preview performance of the RTG’s “Beauty and the Beast” went so spectacularly well. For a couple of weeks now we have felt like we had a huge hit on our hands, but there was no way to really know that with absolute certainty until we had a real live audience in that auditorium to give their collective ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’ We had our first audience last night for the first time, and it turned out to be the largest preview audience we’ve had since “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” over ten years ago. And they laughed and cheered and sighed and gasped- and at the end, they were up on their feet as though their seats had been electrically wired. That kind of a spontaneous standing ovation is so satisfying versus the kind where one or two folks stand up and their joined by another two and another two with the rapidity of mushrooms sprouting in one’s yard. This was like 370 people doing the wave – and it was in honor of the show they had just seen and enjoyed.
This was a Feel Good Show in so many different ways. For one, the story itself is such an important lesson in looking beyond the surface and in appreciating those among us who do not line up neatly with what society deems ‘normal.’ How ironic that Disney, a corporation which at least in some respects enforces ‘normalcy’ amongst its employees as fervently as South Africa used to enforce Apartheid, has brought to the world a show which preaches an attitude which is poles apart from such corporate uptightness. By the way, I’d like to think that I live by the principle of valuing diversity and embracing those who are different, yet the moment I lay eyes on someone who face is riddled with rings or whose arms are covered with tattoos, I decisively cross them off of my list of people with whom I wish to associate. I still have something to learn from this sweet little musical. Most of us do.
This was a Feel Good Show in that it’s one of the nicest casts with which I’ve ever worked. I can think of one person who was a bit of a headache for a few days, but otherwise this group was a complete joy. But they are much more than a Congeniality Convention. They are also very good, from the most major of the leads down to the last member of the chorus, which is what counts even more. ( It does us no good if Singer X is the nicest person on earth but sings like a hinge. ) In some ways, this cast is a demonstration of I Corinthians 13. . . “if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” If this cast was this good but a bunch of self-centered divas, then even their finest singing would be – at least on some level – ugly. But it is because of who they are and how they treat one another that all of us in the audience – and all of us who worked with them – could so fully delight in their excellence.
This was a Feel Good Show because so many people rose to the occasion in spectacular fashion – including the young boy playing the role of Chip. When rehearsals moved from the green room to the auditorium stage, he seemed to shrink and shrivel in his confidence and nothing the director said seemed to make much difference. But last night, in actual performance rather than rehearsal, this young guy found his footing again- almost as though the presence of an audience gave him an energy and passion that otherwise had gone missing. But right down the line- our Beast, Belle, Gaston, LeFou, Cogsworth, and all our other leads- sang so well and seemed to immerse themselves so completely in their respective characters, and more so last night than we had ever seen in rehearsal.
In maybe the most unique Feel Good story of all, the woman singing the crucial role of Mrs. Potts, Ellie Hammond, had a very special reason to be smiling last night. Her husband was dispatched to Iraq three months ago – right around the time of auditions – and a big reason why she auditioned for this show was so she might have something to which she could devote time and energy that would otherwise be expended in pointless worry. Little did she know that we would end up awarding her with as big a role as Mrs Potts, and she has appreciated being given such a challenge and has given herself over to it wholeheartedly. Anyway, it was just a few days before the opening that Ellie received word that her husband would indeed be coming home on schedule – so many people deployed to Iraq find themselves held over beyond their expectations, so this was an immense relief – and in fact he was back just in time to attend the preview performance and to join in the standing ovation for his wife and her cast mates.
So they were on their feet cheering at the end – and the Feel Good atmosphere down in the green room was like the world’s happiest locker room. In fact, the only thing that bothered me ever so slightly was that the one person in the cast who seemed to not have any well-wishers there to congratulate him was our beast, Ryan Klug, who lives an hour away in Hartford, WI. (The preview audience consists almost entirely of relatives and friends of the cast- but Ryan’s people weren’t going to make the trip until the public performances begin this weekend.) I spied him standing off to one side of the green room, all by himself – watching the rest of the cast greet their loved ones – so I quietly whispered to my wife to head over and offer her congratulations, which she immediately did. (And I followed suit as quickly as I could.) Part of it is the mindset that when relatives head down to the green room, they seem pretty much focused on showering congratulations on their little Suzy or little Taylor, while the star of the show might be standing three feet from them, twiddling his thumbs, apparently not worth any acknowledgment at all. (Grrrrrr.) I think part of the problem was that Ryan spends most of the show obscured by heavy makeup, so a lot of people in that green room probably didn’t even recognize him. At any rate, Kathy said that he didn’t seem the least bit bothered by his anonymity – and in fact, it made it all the easier for him to hit the road and get back to Hartford at a civilized hour. By the way, I got to see an old acquaintance from Luther for the first time in 28 years. Tim Welch is his name, and he was one of my alma mater’s finest pianists. His sister Robbyn is in the cast and he was there all the way from Mexico to cheer her on. It was so fun to be crossing paths with him ever so briefly – and we have Beauty and the Beast to thank for it!
Finally, what made this such a Feel Good show for those of us who worked on it is that we were in a position to know just how much blood, sweat and tears went into mounting a show this complicated. There were so many costumes to create (and a few of them will actually not be finished until Friday night) and many volunteer hands – including my wife’s – who stepped in to lend a hand – while other volunteers have been back in the shop, hammering and nailing and sawing and who-knows-what-else in finishing the set. This is also one of those shows where millions of things could potentially go wrong, technically, in the course of a performance- everything from quick costume and set changes to music and lighting cues to fog machine and snow machine magic to microphones . . . and fortunately, the only things that went wrong were scarcely noticeable to anybody in the audience. When the performance ends and the audience is on its collective feet, cheering, there is this incredibly vivid sense of WE DID IT – and that WE extends far beyond those talented folks on the stage, but in fact includes a small army of volunteers without whom we would have a bare stage, naked performers, and none of the magic that is part and parcel to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”