MEAN ON TOP OF ANGRY
‘This is not a warm and fuzzy Beast’
If you haven’t seen “Beauty and the Beast” on stage, it’s not because there haven’t been opportunities. Theaters around town have been staging it for years, although Theatre Memphis hasn’t gotten in on that action until this weekend.
Theatre Memphis’ season opener is its first time to present the Disney classic, and it’s pulling out the fine china for the occasion.
And while it will certainly be the familiar tale that movie and theatergoers are used to, director Amy Hanford has been putting into action specific ideas she wants to see in it.
“There are so many different directions you can go with this show, so many types of stage productions,” she says. “But we didn’t want a cartoon. We wanted real life characters, real life sets. Even with our costuming and lighting, we want to make sure that we’re telling a story with everything, but in a more real way as opposed to a cartoon way.”
She adds, however, that the fun aspects of the characters will be there in full.
“Every little girl wants to be a Belle, and the little girls who come are going to look up to her,” she says. The role is played by Ashley Mccormack, who has starred in numerous musicals in the region for years. “Ashley pulls it off,” Hanford says, “but also keeps a very real side of it. And then we have the Beast. We’ve worked hard to show the element of fear in him, although not so much as to scare our audience out of the theater.”
Charles K. Hodges, a longtime actor and singer who has done a national tour of “Man of La Mancha,” played the Beast at Desoto Family Theatre three years ago, with McCormack as Belle.
Hodges says he portrayed the Beast more sympathetically in that production. “That’s been drilled out of me in this one,” he says. “This is not a warm and fuzzy Beast, at least in Act 1. I portray two emotions: anger and more anger. He’s kind of mean.”
Adds Hanford: “He is until Belle brings some light into him. It’s a nice dynamic that you get to see the transition of the beast because of her, and that’s what I love so much about this show. We see his frustration and anger of being the Beast and living in this dark castle and not having any human interaction. Except for forks and sugar bowls and tea carts.”
Mccormack has done the role three times before, and while it’s a bit different each time, Belle is still Belle.
“She’s definitely a Disney princess, and there are definitely Disney princess moments in this show,” she says. “She is a strongwilled, passionate, independent woman, and that’s one of my favorite things about Belle is to portray that. This time we are trying to keep her very real and very relatable to everyone. So it’s been something to work on and break some of my Disneyisms.”
Some 150 people auditioned for the musical (a Theatre Memphis record) out of whom 30 were chosen. So there are, as you might expect, some highly proficient performers on tap. One is Jude Knight, who as Mrs. Potts gets to sing the title song, and another is Phillip Himebook, who performs the jerk supreme, Gaston.
The crew includes award-winning scenic designer Jack Yates, who has built a castle and created the town. The choreographer is former Ballet Memphis dancer Travis Bradley, who has done lauded work at Playhouse on the Square but is handling movement for the first time at Theatre Memphis.
Threepenny Theatre Company likes to do things a bit differently. Last weekend, it presented four performances of three great oneact plays with a beer accompaniment.
3PT’S Beer Flight Theatre Nights presented works by Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, each paired with a particular beer from Memphis Made Brewing Co. You might prefer one beer over another, and you could also play favorites with the plays.
But even as all the brews were complex and distinct, each play had its own virtues and thrills. Jaclyn Suffel’s reverie in Williams’ “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen” was heartbreakingly beautiful. The terrifying righteous purity echoing through Pinter’s “The New World Order” was squirmingly good.
The longest piece and the one most thoroughly realized was Albee’s “The Zoo Story” with breathtaking performances by Michael Khanlarian and Corey Parker. It was sublime to have a play of such brilliance performed by actors of such intelligence. Call it one of the most riveting performances on local stages in a long time — and there have been some stellar ones lately.
Matt Crewse, a founder of the company, directed all three plays and was production manager. He’s got a keen instinct for presenting remarkable works in fresh ways, and Beer Flight Theatre has proven the point again.
Speaking of bold theater companies, a couple of new ones have been announced in the past week.
Quark Theatre is being put together by Tony Isbell and Adam Remsen, the duo who a year ago presented a memorable production of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “Ohio Impromptu.”
In that vein, Quark (quarktheatre.com) will stage powerful, award-winning plays, beginning with “Blackbird” by David Harrower next March. Next September, it will offer “Years to the Day” by Allen Barton, and in March 2018, it’s putting on “The Nether” by Jennifer Haley.
Meanwhile, veteran director Marler Stone has formed CentreStage Theatre, which is producing “On the Waterfront” next April. Although the website is new (centrestagetheatre.net), Stone staged “An Enemy of the People” as his first Centrestage production last spring.
In “Beauty and the Beast,” Ashley Mccormack as Belle reads to children — Katie Riedel (left), Sophie Younker and Olivia Cheng. At left rear, Meghan Cheng and Dayton Shegog play citizens of the small village.
“Beauty and the Beast” runs Sept. 2-25 at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, 630 Perkins Ext. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. There will also be 2 p.m. matinees on Sept. 10, 17 and 24. Tickets: $30; $15 students, $25 seniors 62 and above and military personnel Info: theatrememphis.org and 901-682-8323.