By TOM CHESEK
It’s a “tale as old as time” in the words of the Oscar-nominated song; an eternal bedtime-story blockbuster that’s been adapted many times over not the least of which was a nightmarishly dreamy 1946 French film directed by Jean Cocteau.
Ask anybody under 20, though, and you’ll find that the story really begins back in 1991, the year that Disney released its now-classic animated musical version of Beauty and the Beast. A success on every front, the film competed for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and spawned a real live stage musical that proved to be a perfect fit for a newly Disney-fied Broadway.
A whole generation has literally grown up watching the various home-video releases of the full-length toon and its many affiliated sequels, “midquels” and games. As Red Bank Regional High School prepares to stage its spring-musical production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast this week, it’s a fact that hasn’t been lost on the director, RBR faculty member Joe Russo.
“The kids couldn’t wait to do this show,” says the magnificently mustachioed Russo, a theater veteran who’s usually cast in the role of the wise mentor who must lecture his young charges on the fine points of old-school classics.
“They know it inside and out…I don’t have to explain to them what’s going on.”
The Broadway stage version, the rights to which just became available this year, departs from the movie script in places and adds some extra songs (the film score by Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman was augmented with new material by Menken and Tim Rice), with the story of the intellectually curious Belle and the callous prince cursed to live out his days as a grotesque man-beast remaining intact along with the anthropomorphized household furnishings, mob-minded townsfolk and well-meaning inventor Dad that we’ve come to know and love.
“There are a lot of parts in this show,” says Russo, listing not only the dozen or so significant speaking roles, but a stageful of “townspeople, wolves, trees, forks, spoons, you name it.”
As Russo points out, there are also “a large number of good female parts” a plus in an endeavor where “for every five male performers trying out for parts, we get 20 females.”
Starring as Belle in RBR’s production is Cody Kasselman of Red Bank, alongside David Smolokoff of West Long Branch as the Beast. Tim Patten of Middletown is the arrogant villager Gaston, with Michael Anderson of Little Silver as dad Maurice. Ilyssa Deponte (Oceanport), Dennis Chambers and Thom Ebel (both Red Bank) lend support as, respectively, Mrs. Potts, Lumiere and Cogsworth the talking teapot, candlestick and clock who befriend our heroine. Phoebe Ryan of Rumson serves as assistant director and appears as one of the “silly girls” of the village.
Now might be a good time to mention that Red Bank Regional productions can scarcely be characterized as high-school typical; the reason being the school’s acclaimed Visual and Performing Arts programs a draw that finds students who live well outside the greater Red Bank area attending classes and participating in such RBR productions as 2007’s Pirates of Penzance and last fall’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
“The competition is tough,” says Russo in reference to the high-caliber talent pool who come out for auditions. “These actors really earn their parts.”
Also not par for the course in most school shows is the fact that several RBR alumni have volunteered their time for the chance to work with Russo on this project; including costume designer Elizabeth Fuschetti and set designer Taline Alexander, a recent graduate of Syracuse University who recently secured an internship with famed puppeteer Basil Twist.
“This is a very difficult show to pull off technically, and we’re trying to make it happen our way,” says Russo, adding in reference to his returning students that “it’s nice to have them back!”
Going up Thursday evening at 7:00p, Beauty and the Beast continues with showtimes at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday, as well as a 3:00p matinee on Sunday. All performances are in the auditorium of Red Bank Regional HS on Ridge Road in Little Silver; for reservations ($15 adults, $10 students, with a special lunch-and-show option available on Sunday) call 732-842-8000, x 227.