There's beauty in this beast

The vaguely familiar songs echo off old lockers in the hallway.

A piano prompts 15 people to hit the hardwood in a long empty gymnasium.

In the back rooms and corridors of this former high school, the sounds of "Beauty and the Beast" are everywhere. For the next two months, Kingston College has become Disney Central.

A casual stroll through the place tells you this is a big deal. There are huge, colourful sets everywhere. A massive lighting system is being installed. And if you follow the voices, you'll find a cast of professional actors whipping the musical into shape for a month-long run at the college's newly named, newly renovated Niagara Centre for the Performing Arts.

Big? Huge, actually. At $2 million, it's the largest theatrical show to ever hit this city.

It is the exact same production of "Beauty and the Beast" that played the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto and wrapped up a 14-year stint on Broadway over the summer.

Director Raquel Duffy has been through it before. Last summer, for instance, when she staged an acclaimed production of Disney's "Aladdin, Jr." at the Greg Frewin Theatre - the first effort by Niagara company Silver Mist Productions.

Even before that show debuted, the company had purchased the sets for "Beauty and the Beast" from another theatre. It required two transport trucks to bring it to Niagara Falls.

The hype machine has been humming for months. The show's two stars offered a sneak peek at the Winter Festival of Lights opening. Schools have been snatching up tickets for a week of matinees.

Next week, the Beast finally breaks free.

"Compared to Aladdin, it's double, maybe triple the size," says Duffy, who brought a handful of cast members back for the follow-up, including Ashley Taylor as Belle.

But it's not just the show that's bigger, it's the expectations. As a film, "Beauty and the Beast" was among the last of Disney's traditional animated classics and is still the only animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It won Oscars for Best Song and Best Original Score.

"It's just better written," says Duffy without hesitation. "You know a show is well-written when you're looking for places to shave off minutes and it's hard to do.

"I find the themes more relevant and it's just been around longer. There was more time to play with it. At the heart of it is a beautiful love story and an unexpected one.

"It's a story we're all familiar with and that's a tricky thing, because it was a film first. There are all these kids coming in expecting these characters to talk and look a certain way and they know this story inside and out. We're trying to keep the integrity of that while telling our own story ... making it ours."

THEY SAY baseball is a game of inches. So is live theatre ... at least at this level.

The cast has just finished an energetic run-through of "Beauty and the Beast's" opening number and choreographer Mary Lou Martin is pointing at their feet. A few are off their mark by half a step. Some are an inch or two in the wrong place.

It's the first week of rehearsal, but she's already seeing the show through the audience's eyes.

"If you're ever behind someone, step out," she says, before cueing musical director MJ Johnson to begin again.

At the centre of the hustle bustle is Taylor, a radiant 23-year-old with - if there is such a thing - a perfect Disney face. It's her second Silver Mist show and her second lead role.

"I had a fantastic time (last summer)," she says. "It was a wonderful group of people; lots of talent on stage and off stage.

"Everyone was very passionate about being part of a new company from the ground up. We really learned about the business, how it works and what needs to be done."

Co-star Gabriel Burrafato, playing the Beast, was a huge fan of the Toronto version and can see something special brewing in Niagara Falls.

"It's got substance ... I mean, the score, the lyrics, you've got some pros working there."

The 34-year-old actor can already feel a "family" atmosphere starting with the show, which bodes well. He has seen productions ruined by backstage egos.

It didn't take long for Taylor to impress him.

"When you get a diva mentality, it does affect the whole company," he says.

"Especially when you're playing opposite someone in a romantic role," adds Taylor. "There needs to be some kind of chemistry there. Fortunately, Gabriel and I get along very well."

Manitoba's Mark Harapiak is the third piece of the show's love triangle. As the villainous Gaston, he has some of the best lines and snappiest scenes.

"It's just so cool that a theatre company like this started here," he says. "It's amazing they found this niche."

Now that the niche is filled, Duffy has one simple goal - leave the crowd, and cast, wanting more.

"I think most of the ("Aladdin") cast were interested in coming back here to work," says Duffy. "I love it here. We still have to do the Criminal Hall of Fame."

By John Law, Niagara Falls Review


There's beauty in this beast