CHS tackles a tale as old as time

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Colchester High School senior Mario Houle and junior Bella Lopez rehearse a dance for the upcoming production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Colchester High School student Bella Lopez lived out a childhood dream last month when she attended the premiere of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” at Essex Cinemas dressed in her favorite princess’ trademark dress.

In between passing out “save the dates,” the junior joked she strained to hear the action through the movie theater’s closed doors, later covering her ears as friends discussed the film.

Lopez was promoting the CHS Theatre Company’s own production of the classic musical, set to take the stage next weekend, just weeks after the popular live action remake attracted crowds across the country.

Theater director Amanda Hughes said the movie’s release was a major factor in her decision to take on the elaborate show. Auditions were conducted just before Christmas, and rehearsals have marched on ever since.

“That’s really helped us a lot because a lot of people are talking about the movie,” Hughes said. “It’s been on a lot of peoples’ minds, and I think it makes the kids even more excited.”

She stepped into the theater department’s leading role two years ago, just three weeks before the school’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” A full time English teacher at CHS, Hughes had experience in costume design but not directing.

Hughes stuck around after the last minute substitution, helping facilitate student directed plays and leading Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” late last year.

Typically, the company produces a musical in the fall and a more trimmed back play in the springtime. A voter approved theater renovation project prompted Hughes to flip the usual schedule, saving the blockbuster show for the second half of the school year, when all upgrades were completed.

The difference post-renovation is especially apparent to CHS junior Brooke Marcotte who works in the lighting and sound booth. This time last year, she said the school’s small soundboard stopped working and had to be replaced with a decades-old used version.

The lighting board was behind the times, too, Marcotte said, and had a faulty fuse prone to shutting off all the lights on stage at unpredictable times. Now in charge of lighting design, Marcotte said the number of available configurations is almost overwhelming.

Instead of using gel overlays to create different colors on individual stage lights, Marcotte can now click anywhere on a computerized color wheel to automatically achieve the look she wants. In a chase scene through the woods, for example, Marcotte is eyeing a deep purple glow.

“It makes the show look a lot better,” Marcotte said. “It’s amazing.”

Later this week, Marcotte will be one of the students on hand to help as CW Stage Works, a production rental company, loads in the special lights for the show. Hughes said the experience is the type of hands-on learning the district is working to integrate.

At a rehearsal last Friday afternoon, Lopez and CHS senior Mario Houle twirled on stage as Belle and Beast without any of the stage lights, showy set pieces or costumes. The musical’s titular song played softly from a nearby speaker.

On show night, that music will come from a live orchestra made up entirely of Colchester students.

Colchester High School students work on a bookcase prop in the back of the newly renovated performing arts center for their upcoming production of "Beauty and the Beast." The company is also ordering professional prop pieces, like a magic mirror and robotic rose. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Colchester High School students work on a bookcase prop in the back of the newly renovated performing arts center for their upcoming production of “Beauty and the Beast.” The company is also ordering professional prop pieces, like a magic mirror and robotic rose. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

And before the curtain goes up, the cast will have custom fitted costumes and a revolving set built by a student’s father that will integrate a remote-controlled rose and magical mirror, among other props.

The starring duo was thrilled with Hughes’ pick but said the well-known show presents its share of challenges. Between the recent remake and the classic cartoon, Lopez says many audience members will have preconceived ideas of how each character should behave.

“People definitely want to see what they know. If we have new ideas, it’s very hard,” Lopez said. “While keeping it classic and being the character Belle, I also want to put my own spin on it, too.”

Houle has done the same, creating a much more vulnerable Beast than the one seen in many popular depictions. He said he worried the initially mean-spirited character sets the stage for a less-than-believable happy ending later in the show.

“The Beast, like all the other characters, is still human inside. He just has this ugly feature to him,” Houle said. “I want to make it more about that rather than his personality [being] the problem.”

Hughes said she and Houle have worked carefully to craft the uniquely gentle Beast, even examining the way he walks about the stage. Their version is part buffalo, bear and lion, among other animals.

Beyond this, Hughes thinks some audience members may have a hard time getting used to a life-sized Mrs. Potts or Lumiere, usually seen in miniature form.

Computer generated imagery and animation also helped make the famous transformation from beast to prince totally seamless in the film, Hughes said. She’s still brainstorming a way for Houle to inconspicuously lose a furry hood, horns and prosthetic face pieces on stage in less than 60 seconds.

“The show is super hard to do on Broadway, so the fact that we’re doing it as a high school show is nerve wracking,” Houle said.

Hughes knew the play would be tricky but is looking forward to seeing folks react to a show that’s already generating buzz around town.

“This is kind of our big keynote, cornerstone experience,” Hughes said. “This might be the biggest or most involved show we’ve ever done.”

Catch Colchester High School Theatre Company’s performance of Beauty and the Beast on Friday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 15 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at the CHS Performing Arts Center, 131 Laker Ln. Tickets are $5 and available for advanced purchase at https://tinyurl.com/k9rvrhc.