HT Feature: Beauty and the Beast
Cardinal Stage opens the book on annual holiday production
By Jenny Porter Tilley
December 16, 2018
One of the takeaways from the classic story “Beauty and the Beast” is not to judge a book by its cover. But you can certainly judge Cardinal Stage’s current production by its books.
Cardinal’s holiday show, the musical “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” opened Thursday at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Scenic designer David Higgins staged the show by creating large books, which open up to illustrations of various locations in the story: the village, the palace, the forest. “We didn’t want to do something that was already done,” Higgins said, crediting Cardinal artistic director Kate Galvin with the notion of capitalizing on Belle’s love of books and her interest in literature and reading.
Book-loving kids and adults will be treated to what are likely the biggest books they’ve ever seen, in a somewhat unlikely space. Because the theater was built for films and not fully staged productions, there’s not much space offstage or backstage.“Musicals require a lot of different scenes. There’s a lot of action, things coming and going on stage,” he said. And many of the costumes are elaborate and bulky. He said that given the level of activity, “the scenery is designed with that challenge in mind. It really sort of drove the whole concept of the production.”
The book idea worked. “Once we settled on the concept of using these oversized books, it made it possible to simply open the book,” Higgins said. Disney’s 1991 animated film’s first scene starts a book opening and tells the story of how the prince becomes a beast. In Cardinal’s production, the introduction is narrated by WFIU classical music host George Walker, and the fairy tale pages are projected illustrations Higgins created.
He integrated a 19th-century look for the books to give an old-storybook feel. But the story of Belle and her beloved prince-turned-animal goes back even further. “When Mrs. Potts sings the lyrics ‘Tale as old as time,’ that is actually quite accurate,” Galvin said. “And certainly today, our interpretation of it is informed by our current society, and the character of Belle is stronger and more different probably than in previous interpretations of the story.”
Cardinal Stage’s staff and board, in partnership with the Monroe County Public Library, hope young theatergoers will follow Belle’s lead and get excited about books. The library is just a short walk from the theater. Lisa Champelli, children’s strategist at the library, said it’s common for families to come in looking for books of shows they’ve attended or are about to see. “It’s a wonderful way for children and caregivers to spend time together, reading together, preparing for the experience of seeing the play,” she said. In school classrooms, teachers have the opportunity to talk about the show afterward. “That’s often when children are going to solidify comprehension — talking with teachers and parents about the experience.”
Kids can learn the historical context of a story, its origins and why it endures. “So many people think classic folk tales originated with Disney, but they were passed down through generations,” Champelli said. “This one is a little different — it can be attributed to a known author.” She said the main themes in folk stories are the common thread that keep them alive. “Beauty and the Beast” has many of those thematic elements: What it means to be brave, love, what it means to be beautiful and the importance of not making judgments about others.
In a study guide available from the Monroe County Public Library, educators have the opportunity to discuss central themes in a story with students. “Are people really what they appear?” one question poses. “Who in the play was not how they appeared at the beginning?” Galvin said that during rehearsals, she learned that Gaston — Belle’s unwanted suitor — was the first Disney villain who doesn’t start out as the clear bad guy. He starts out as more comical, then takes on a darker persona.“You don’t think that he’s an evil person, you just think he’s an idiot.” Galvin hopes to re-create that discovery for viewers who’ve never seen a “Beauty and the Beast.”
Cardinal’s annual holiday tradition continues through Dec. 30, leaving families in the region with several opportunities to watch the animated and live-action films, read different versions of the book, see the musical and examine the fairy tale’s place in history and entertainment.