Beauty and the Beast
Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse
Through Sept. 5 at the Playhouse, Crossville, Tenn.
In the fall of 2003, the Disney organization announced that it was making available the worldwide performing rights to the stage version of the hugely successful 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast. Up to that time, only Disney-sponsored stage versions had been performed, on Broadway and as road tours. Stepping up to make history of a kind, Cumberland County Playhouse (CCP) in Crossville, Tenn., has claimed the honor of presenting the first non-Disney-affiliated production in the world.
"We moved as fast as we could," says Jim Crabtree, producing director at CCP since 1976. "Ours is the world regional premiere and the first independent production anywhere. We were well-positioned when Beauty came available. Since we operate on a calendar-year schedule, we could take advantage of fall announcements." The show opened on June 18 and will play through Sept. 5.
CCP is located approximately 115 miles to Nashville's east, basically a straight shot out I-40, through clean countryside and rolling greenery. Crossville is almost equidistant from Music City, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
"We draw Tennessee's largest theater audience," Crabtree continues. His company performs three shows in repertoryBeauty is running concurrently with Noises Off and the perennial favorite Smoke on the Mountain, which has had a lively touring life, including stints at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and at venues in Memphis and Jackson.
Though located in a modest rural community of 9,500, CCP is no cornpone country endeavor. Since starting as a community theater in 1965, the enterprise has grown significantly over the years. Building expansion in 1993 included a new lobby, the O'Brien Adventure Theater, and on-site scenery and costume shops. The company employs resident non-union performing professionals year-round and adds seasonal guest artists as needed. CCP, a freestanding nonprofit 501(c)3, uses 200 to 300 creative artists in the course of a season, plus a training program of adult volunteers, with an overall operating budget of $3 million.
"Our company's been around a long time," says Crabtree. "We mount fairly impressive musical theater productions, which are a principal revenue source. Other nonprofits in Tennessee perform in subsidized spacebut we produce our own shows and operate our theater from the ground up. We're competitive statewide with Tennessee Arts Commission (TAC) grants because we're a major cultural institution in a rural area."
CCP sports an impressive bottom line, operating on 85 percent earned revenue, including facilities costs. Additional support monies come from corporate sponsorships, individual donations, the city and county, TAC, the Southern Arts Federation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The budget for Beauty and the Beast is $300,000, including $50,000 spent on costumes alone. The cast includes two dozen pro-level performers plus about 35 local children and teenagers. There's also a 13-piece orchestra under the direction of Ron Murphy.
CCP is now in the process of arranging rentals of the more than 150 costumes, created from scratch, to companies elsewhere, further enhancing the show's financial viability. "We're marketing our first-year rentals already," says Crabtree, "with shows scheduled in Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. The investment in the costumes requires a serious marketing effort."
Meanwhile, Crabtree is making plans to break new theatrical ground in November, when CCP will present Two by Two, the 30-year-old Richard Rodgers/Martin Charnin/Peter Stone musical about Noah and the Flood. Lyricist Charnin himself is working closely with the company to fulfill the work's original vision.
And how is Beauty and the Beast? Simply enchanting.
Obviously an experienced producer, Crabtree also handles directorial chores with the aplomb of P.T. Barnum, blending his paid and volunteer players seamlessly into a tight, enthusiastic company. Last Saturday's matinee thoroughly entertained a crowd of 500 in CCP's barn-like Main Stage theater. The plentiful costumes were delightfully rendered, all taking their cue from the Disney film. Curtis Phillips' classy scenery and impressive set changes offered an additional sense of showmanship.
The heart-tugging warmth of the Disney original is completely intact here, driven by Linda Wolverton's lively book and the songs of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Crabtree's company also manages to adequately re-create some of the comical animation bits that make the movie such an unmitigated joy.
The cast is first-rate as well, blurring the line between union and non-union status completely. This is especially so in the case of Holly O'Brien, a non-union actress who is as lovely and talented a Belle as you'll ever see. O'Brien has an angelic pop voice that epitomizes the youthful, contemporary leading musical lady, and she nails ballads like "Home" and "A Change in Me" with star power.
Josh Powell as the cartoonish Gaston, Jason Ross as Lumiere and Weslie Webster as Mrs. Potts are the three Actors' Equity union cast members, and they're top-notch, in particular Powell, who, with his outrageous pompadour and flexing muscles, is hysterical even when he's being the bad guy. Other standout performers are Terry Schwab, Nicole Begue, Jesse Graham, Wayne Richman and Stefan Basti. Britt Hancock is the Beast, and while he seems a tad amateurish, he snarls believably, gets his laughs when it counts and sings capably enough. His magical change from Beast to handsome prince is also effected with stirring technical dazzle.
The CCP mist machine runs amok at one point, and Act 1 rings down at a fairly lengthy running time (1:45). But those are minor complaints, since everything is so winningly presented. Best of all are the exciting big numbers, including the opener "Belle," the underrated "Human Again" and the movie's runaway hit, "Be Our Guest."
It's a two-hour jaunt out to CCP, but the journey is pleasant, and this Beauty is well worth the ride. Tickets remain available for the final three weeks, though the Saturday matinees fill up swiftly. For information and reservations, phone (931) 484-5000.
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!