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.


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