July was once a quiet time for the Waco Civic Theatre and the Waco Independent School District stages. The theater rarely had a major production, and the WISD’s performing spaces were resting between school years and students.
That ended this month with the musical “Beauty and the Beast,” a large-scale production with a cast of more than 60 people staged on the Waco High School Richfield Performing Arts Center stage.
It is a collaboration between the community theater and the Waco school district, and audiences can sample the result as the musical begins a two-weekend run starting Thursday.
WCT Executive Director Eric Shephard and WISD Director of Fine Arts Larry Carpenter, a former WCT board member, had talked informally about ways their two organizations could work together, and “Beauty and the Beast” is the result.
For the theater, the partnership provides a bigger stage and higher fly-space above that stage, a larger auditorium, a production budget supported by $10,000 in educational and theater grants, and teachers and students normally unavailable during the school year.
For the district, it’s an additional opportunity for students to get training and experience outside school productions, a chance for theatrically minded teachers to perform outside the school year and school duties, and a chance for the district to strengthen ties with its community, Carpenter said.
Both Waco High and University High present musicals each school year, with Waco High performing “The Little Mermaid” and University High “Godspell” this coming school year.
For veteran WCT director Richard Leslie and music director Lauren Weber, a Baylor Theatre instructor, the joint project has meant the typical challenge of a large, popular musical. In the case of “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s a large, popular Disney musical adapted from Disney’s 1991 animated film.
“Obviously, people are expecting to see what they’ve seen on the animated videos,” Leslie said. “ ‘Be Our Guest,’ a big production number, has to be there and you have to have the introduction of Belle passing through the village.”
There’s also that visual transformation of the Beast toward the end of the story, which, in the WCT production, will involve some character flying that couldn’t be done on the smaller WCT stage.
Sets and special effects, led by the efforts of Waco High technical director Cory Garrett, however, have taken a back seat to working with a large cast. “The biggest change is that all principals are double-cast,” he said, meaning that each major role has two actors to allow multiple performances. “That adds a new wrinkle to the process, but it’s been positive. Each (actor) brings a different take on it as an actor. It’s kind of exciting.”
The double-casting also adds new wrinkles on the musical side of things. Production costs and the difficulty of hiring orchestra players in the summertime mean that “Beauty and the Beast’s” actors will sing to instrumental tracks.
While the orchestration quality is high, they also leave singers with less flexibility in interpretation or live reaction.
“If you miss a vamp, you miss a vamp,” she said, talking about the instrumental phrases that often cue a performer. Having two actors for each principal role means more rehearsing and work on blending differing vocal styles and timbres.
It also means that audiences may not see the same show twice, depending on the cast combinations in any given performance. “If you see it three or four times, you could see a totally different show,” Weber said.
Despite the perception that “Beauty and the Beast” is a children’s story, the musical has a largely grown-up cast, she points out, with only one principal role, the cup Chip, played by young students and high school students fleshing out the ensemble.
“This has been a wonderful experience. We have a positive and enthusiastic cast,” she said. “It’s a big show and takes a lot of willing hands.”
From the film
She would know: As a music theater teacher at Western Wyoming Community College in 2006, she once directed an 84-person “Beauty and the Beast.”
The musical features the same characters as the animated film. There’s Belle (Ashley Meade, Meredith Marcum), the independent daughter of a somewhat eccentric inventor in a French village (Bill Selby, R. Scott Peden); the handsome, boorish Gaston (Jonah Hardt, Tyler Miller) who wants to marry her; his sidekick, Le Fou (Brian Crowder, Cameron Dinkins); the bewitched Beast (John Tripp, Todd Blattman); and his similarly enchanted household staff, Lumiere (Jason Sanchez, Ty West); Cogsworth (David Watson, Phillip Diaz); Mrs. Potts (Christie Lujan, Lucinda Jackson); and her son, Chip (Calee Scoggins, Ellie Becker); Babette (Desiree Foley, Heather Harter); and Madame de la Grande Bouche (Kari Peden, Kimberly Lane).
Audiences who’ve enjoyed past versions of “Beauty and the Beast” should like the WCT-WISD production, director Leslie said. “It’s a magical show. We’re quite fortunate to get it here in Central Texas,” he said.
“Beauty and the Beast”
By Waco Civic Theatre and Waco Independent School District
Performances: 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and July 28-30, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and July 31 at Richfield Performing Arts Center, Waco High School, 2020 N. 42nd St.
Tickets: $20 and $18, $18 and $16 for matinees and July 28 performance, $10 for Thursday. Tickets at www.wacocivictheatre.org.