Aspen community comes together to stage ‘Beauty and the Beast’
If You Go …
What: ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ presented by Aspen Community Theatre
Where: Aspen District Theatre
When: Nov. 6 – 15 (Nov. 6, 7, 11, 12, 13 and 15, 7 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 8 and 15, 2 p.m.)
How much: $20/adults; $16/children under 12
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: http://www.aspencommunitytheatre.com
Thirty-eight locals sat in a circle at the Black Box Theatre on an early September evening – most of the strangers to one another, all of them with scripts on their laps. This was Aspen Community Theatre’s first rehearsal for “Beauty and the Beast,” bringing together Roaring Fork Valley residents young and old, theater veterans alongside newcomers.
They introduced themselves, listened to a cast recording of the long-running hit Disney Broadway show, read their dialogue aloud in between songs and got measured for their costumes. As director Marisa Post put it, “Tonight is just for us to stumble our way through.”
Less than two months later, after three-hour rehearsals five nights per week, that disparate collection of Aspenites has congealed into a cast – quite literally in harmony with one another – that’s ready to put on a show. They have the numbers down, from the title song to “Belle,” “Be Our Guest” and “Gaston,” they’ve honed their steps, and they’ll have an opening night audience before them at the Aspen District Theatre on Friday, Nov. 6.
“It’s an intense but fun rehearsal process,” Travis Lane McDiffett, who plays the Beast, said at one of the final rehearsals. “We’re all passionate about doing these shows. We give up a lot of our time – we all have day jobs – so it’s an above and beyond commitment to do it.”
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McDiffett, an alumni of the Crystal Palace dinner theater, is making a return to Aspen Community Theatre after a nine-year absence. The actor with a booming, husky voice fit for the Beast performed in several Aspen Community Theatre productions when he lived in Aspen between 2000 and 2008.
Working alongside people going on stage for the first time, he said, is among the unique joys of community theater.
“It’s a lot of fun to get to know these people, to watch them grow and see them experience this level of theater as an amateur,” he said.
Something happens every year between that first rehearsal and opening night. Other than blocking scenes, learning lines and choreography, people tend to bond in a way that extends beyond the length of a show.
“In the 22 years I’ve lived in Aspen, the absolute best friends I’ve made are the people who I’ve worked with on these shows,” Ed Foran, a veteran of nine Aspen Community Theatre productions, told his castmates at that first rehearsal.
McDiffett, for example, left Aspen for a dinner theater in Florida after the Crystal Palace closed in 2008. What drew him home last year, he said, were people he met on stage in community theater.
“It was those relationships that brought me back to the valley,” he said, “those people I’ve done community theater with, and worked at the Crystal Palace with.”
For Aspen newcomer Alixandra Bigley, who plays Belle, “Beauty and the Beast” has quickly made her one of the gang around the valley.
“As someone who is brand new to the valley, I feel like I know so many people in the community now,” she said before a rehearsal last week. “Now I just run into people I know everywhere I go in Aspen – it feels like family.”
Bigley completed her masters in theater performance and pedagogy at Penn State in the spring, and came to town as a 2015 Theatre Aspen Apprentice in arts administration (local theatergoers may remember her from the summer’s Theatre Aspen Apprentice Showcase). She stuck around to work for the nonprofit this fall, and auditioned for “Beauty and the Beast,” in part, because the classic Disney film on which it’s based was a childhood staple for her. Trained as an opera singer, “Beauty and the Beast” is Bigley’s first musical theater performance.
“’Beauty and the Beast’ is a dream show to be a part of,” she said. “I wasn’t even thinking I get [the role of] Belle. I was just thinking, ‘I’ll meet people and be in the ensemble.’”
The scene where Belle rebuffs the boorish prince Gaston and runs into a field, singing, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!” is iconic for Bigley. Now she gets to live it.
She’s received a good luck charm from Theatre Aspen artistic director Paige Price, who was in the ensemble and the Belle understudy in the original Broadway production of “Beauty and the Beast.” Price lent Bigley her Belle’s necklace from the Broadway run.
As for the rest of the costumes, the show calls, of course, for a prosthetic head for the Beast and for actors to transform into a candelabra, a clock, a feather duster and a tea pot in the Beast’s castle. Aspen Community Theatre appears to be living up to its long-earned reputation for putting on professional caliber theater with this ambitious and epic production, which includes complex costuming, set decoration, sound and lighting. The castle is a feat in itself, built on-stage in colorful multi-tiered form.
As it all came together, and the fairy tale came to life, reality set in for the community theater team. Entering the last week of rehearsals, the “Beauty and the Beast” cast gathered around Post, their director, on stage at the District Theatre.
“We are here,” she told them. “This is it.”
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