Beauty and the Beast. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman. Book by Linda Woolverton. Director: Casey White. Music Director: Caleb Campbell. Choreographer: Madelyn White. Canberra Philharmonic Society. March 7 to 23, Erindale Theatre. Tickets from www.philo.org.au
When Queanbeyan drama teacher Charlotte Gearside first donned the iconic golden ball gown from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast she struggled not to cry.
“It was magical,” she says.
“The five year old in me actually got so excited because to this day that Disney film is my favourite.
“And Belle is still my favourite character – I was ecstatic when I got the role.”
Gearside, 31, is one of 20 cast members in final rehearsals for the upcoming season of Canberra Philharmonic’s Beauty and the Beast, opening at Erindale Theatre in early March.
It’s the stage version of Disney’s original 1991 movie and features human versions of some of the studio’s funniest and most endearing animated characters – from Lumiere and Cogsworth to Mrs Potts, Gaston and Belle’s father Maurice.
The role of Chip – the tiny chipped teacup – is being shared by Canberra actors Gabriella Heron and Annabelle Moloney.
Gearside says Belle is the kind of princess girls and female teens can look up to.
“I fell in love with her when I realised she was pretty much the only Disney princess that isn’t actually looking for a prince,” she says.
“She’s just looking beyond what the norm is in her village … I think she does feel lonely and disconnected from her world which makes her long for more.
“But I think that makes her even stronger in wanting to find who she is in a bigger place. She has this independence that I feel like no other Disney princess has.
“Her longing isn’t for love or to find another half; her longing is for adventure and mystery. And if it comes with romance, then cool.”
Behind-the-scenes at Erindale Theatre, 31-year-old Gearside’s wardrobe rack features Belle’s golden ball gown, as well as the classic blue-and-white village dress.
“You should have seen my face on costume call day when we had our photos taken,” she laughs.
“I’m thinking after this I might need to go Disneyland and play Belle permanently.”
According to Gearside, the pressure of performing in Beauty and the Beast is a bit like performing in the stage versions of The Wizard of Oz or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“It’s such a beloved story, everyone’s really invested in their characters,” she says.
“But it’s also about trying to find that nice balance between ‘This is a classic Disney tale’ and actually bringing some truth and reality into the characters as well.”
Gearside, a Sydney native, has been busy in the amateur theatre scene since moving to Canberra two years ago. She was cast in Philo’s Chicago in 2016 and since then has appeared in Heathers and Jesus Christ Superstar.
The man in charge of directing Beauty and the Beast for Canberra Philharmonic, Casey White, admits the 1991 Disney animated movie terrified him.
“I was only a kid when it came out and the fight scenes were too scary,” White says.
“The scene at the end where Gaston stabs the Beast and throws him off the balcony, it just wasn’t wholesome enough at the time.”
So has he toned down the scary parts – including Belle’s father Maurice being attacked by wolves in a bleak forest – for the Canberra stage version?
“Not toned them down, but we will be using lighting and a few different other things to try and make it more artistic,” White says.
“We don’t want it to be literal, that could be too much for the kids.”
White’s most recent work includes conducting Jesus Christ Superstar for Canberra Philharmonic and directing The Boy From Oz for north-east Tasmanian company Burnie Musical Society.
Of all the characters in Beauty and the Beast, White feels a particular affinity for French candlestick Lumiere.
“He’s funny, he’s a little bit cheeky, he reminds me a little bit of myself,” White laughs.
“He loves chatting and a lot of funny banter but deep down he really cares deeply for everyone around him.”
The “transformation” scene, where – spoiler alert – the Beast changes back to the prince he once was is proving especially difficult to stage, according to White.
“It’s taken us a couple of months and we’ve worked through a few different permutations.” he says.
“We’ll put the final parts of that scene together once we get into the theatre and set up all the lights and the haze.”
For 27-year-old Canberra amateur theatre veteran Lachlan McGinness, who plays the Beast, the complexities of playing a character who’s part man, part animal is forcing him to be more creative than usual.
To determine his character’s emotional state in each scene, McGinnis developed “the Beastometer”.
“It’s been tricky trying to figure him out, that’s for sure,” McGinnis says.
“When I first read through the script, he almost seemed like he was inconsistent – there was no consistent way that he was behaving. So I came up with this idea called the Beastometer.
“Essentially, he’s on a transformation from one – which I consider being a complete monster – to 10, which is where he ends up as prince charming.
“He starts out being this really angry selfish character and then he goes into this insecure, afraid of what’s going to happen next, self doubting phase where the dominant emotion is sadness.
“He ends up with confidence, and he’s selfless and he thinks about others. So I used the Beastometer to think, ‘OK, where has he moved to in this scene?’ and that helped me understand what he’s actually doing at different points in time.”
McGinnis is still getting used to his giant beast claws – “I challenge myself offstage by trying to text my friends and eat dinner with a fork while wearing them” – and the growl he’s had to develop.
“[Playing the Beast] you certainly get to explore lots of things you don’t normally get to,” he laughs.
“I haven’t really played an animal before so Casey’s been working with me on what to do with my hands, what should my stance look like.
“I think overall he actually thinks I go too far and look a little too animal-like and he’s trying to pull me back a bit.”