Friday, January 29, 2010


Brendan Lemon

Gaston is the unbearably conceited stud in "Beauty and the Beast," and I think it's fair to say that for Nathaniel Hackmann, who plays him, the role's not a stretch. Just consider some of roles he's played in a still-young career fairly equally divided between opera and musical theater: Lancelot in "Camelot," Belcore in "Elixir of Love," the title role in "Don Giovanni."

"In my last bio," joked Hackmann, "it said, 'Other egomaniacal, misogynistic antagonists' I have played are..."

In the opera world, it's standard for a baritone to be the bad guy, or, at least, the personality with the shady past. But in the musical theater the baritone is just as often more heroic, a fact illustrated by digging deeper into Hackmann's roster of roles: Emile in "South Pacific," the Pirate King in "The Pirates of Penzance."

Hackmann only completed his schooling (a Master's in Music from Central Michigan University in December 2006) a few years ago, but his back-and-forth between opera and musicals is second-nature. He explains: "During the entire time I was a student, I was putting myself through school by doing professional theater on the side. I'd rehearse opera during the day and do musicals at night."

For Hackmann, who grew up in Arizona, in a very musical family, juggling the two art forms can be a challenge. "It can be complicated to work out the scheduling," he admitted. "Operas will often cast two or three seasons ahead of time. Jobs in musicals happen more quickly." He said that for the "Beauty and the Beast" tour he had to ask for release from three of his upcoming opera contracts.

"It's worth it," he explained. "Everything about rehearsing for this tour has been amazing. The cast are incredibly giving, and the creative team is so deep in talent that you can always find someone to give you just the help you need."

For Hackmann, such a support staff is a luxury compared to the previous times he played Gaston. He did the part last year at the Cumberland County Playhouse, in Crossville, Tennessee, and in 2005 in summer stock in Findlay, Ohio. "Findlay was good experience," he said, "but I'd be singing and at the same time have to turn the set. For this new tour I can concentrate on performing."


Wednesday, January 27, 2010


by Brendan Lemon

Officially, auditions for the “Beauty and the Beast” tour began last year. Unofficially, they began fifteen or even twenty years ago: it’s just that the auditioners were performing not for judges or casting directors but for the bedroom mirror, as the “Beauty” DVD played on a TV, or for a parent or family member, who was playing a Disney songbook on a piano.

Consider Liz Shivener, who is the tour’s very talented Belle. “I was four when the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ movie came out,” she says, “but I didn’t get really obsessed with it until I was eight or nine. Like a lot of little girls, that’s the age when I wanted to be a princess.”

Shivener, who’s from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, outside of Columbus, says it wasn’t just “Beauty” that she used to perform around the house for her family. “There were four big shows in my repertoire then,” she jokes. “They were: ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ and ‘Cinderella.’”

I don’t think that Shivener has yet had the chance to perform in any of them besides “Beauty.” (With her lovely voice and onstage charm, I have a feeling she will.) She has, however, been in “Bye Bye Birdie,” which she auditioned for at 14, as she was getting started on a high-school experience that included half-days in a performing-arts program at a local career center.

At Otterbein College, from which she earned a B.F.A. in musical theater and from which “Beauty” cast member Steven Czarnecki also graduated, Shivener appeared in such productions as “Hello, Dolly!”, “Company,” and “Nine.”

As for her work so far on “Beauty and the Beast,” Shivener says she’s been especially grateful to director Robert Jess Roth and choreographer Matt West for their insights into Belle. “They’ve helped me understand the back story about Belle’s relationship with her father, which is key to the character.”

Was there anything Shivener wanted to share about her own family relationships? “There’s something I can say about my mother,” she answered. “When I got cast as Belle, I said to her, ‘All my dancing around the house singing those songs as a kid was totally worth it!”


Monday, January 25, 2010


by Brendan Lemon

Some rehearsal rooms resemble group therapy: the director and the actors explore deep emotions. Others are more like a college seminar: the director and the actors excavate the play’s text. But I’m happy to report that the rehearsals for Beauty and the Beast – I visited one last week -- are more like summer camp for grown-ups.

Rehearsals began early this month at the Gateway Playhouse, in Bellport, Long Island. The family that founded the theater in 1941 (and still runs it) took a page from the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musicals of that era and literally started putting on shows in their barn. Such can-do spirit permeated the air when I observed a rehearsal: director Robert Jess Roth and choreographer Matt West alternately surveyed the actors on stage from a makeshift table set up in the audience and went up on stage to work with them on a run-through of the first act.

“We’re very lucky to be rehearsing on an actual stage” Roth told me. As we talked his three year-old black lab Dash (“I’ve always wanted to have a dog come to rehearsals with me; it helps keep the vibe friendly”) rested his nose on the director’s legs (“He thinks he’s a lap dog”). “Usually, you rehearse in a big rehearsal room in New York and don’t have a chance to see how things look on an actual proscenium until you start the tech rehearsals. We’re a step ahead by doing things here on Long Island.”

Choreographer West seconded Roth’s comment. “The kind of stuff that you might not be able to correct until tech rehearsals is stuff we can start to work on here.”

And make no mistake about it: the cast was working hard. Numbers like “Belle” came to life onstage even though the cast had only basic scenery and was without the production’s sure-to-be spectacular costumes.

But the actors were also clearly enjoying themselves. As part of the summer-camp feel, they not only live, breathe, and sleep “Beauty” but they also live together: not in rustic cabins but in a nearby hotel. “ We’re not sick of each other yet!” said ensemble member Steven Czarnecki with good spirits as I rode with him and other cast members from their lodgings over to the theater in a van that had been christened “Martha Washington.” (I tried to extract a colorful story about that designation, to no avail.)

All the van passengers agreed that it was humbling to be doing the show with its original
Broadway creative staff at the helm. Brandon Haagenson, who was at the wheel of
the van, said that the animated Disney Beauty and the Beast had been “one of my first experiences in the movie theater.” Others – Jen Bechter (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Heather Russell (ensemble) – added that the movie had also played a part in their younger days.

“I used to drive my mother crazy with how often I played the DVD,” said another passenger, Liz Shivener, who plays Belle and to whom I will devote a separate blog entry.