Feisty young French woman charms brooding beast

Emily Behny, who played Belle in the national tour of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” was 23 when nominated for the Helen Hayes Award, a prestigious theatre accolade that recognizes performances in the Washington, D.C. area. It was a pretty heady moment, she admits. Behny will reprise her touring role in The Gateway’s production at Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts Dec. 14-30.

So will Loren Christopher as the Beast. He’s already emoted as the prince cursed to live in an animal-like body for The Gateway (2013), an interesting stretch, as he has played handsome leads like Tony in “West Side Story” and Chris in the national tour of “Miss Saigon.”

Behny, Christopher, director Joseph Minutillo and choreographer Debbie Rosche spoke to the Long Island Advance during a lunch break from rehearsals last week.

“Belle is strong-willed, feisty and stands up for what she believes in,” said Behny of the inner strengths that resonate with her persona. “She also puts others’ needs before her own. These are the characteristics I admire and would hope to emulate.”

Would Belle be the type to call her senator, as Behny says she does on her website?

“Absolutely,” she replied without a second thought. “She’d be at the Women’s March. She’d be on the town council.”

Christopher, who originally hails from Colorado, was asked about that wide comparison between heartthrob roles and, well, being beastly.

“That was super difficult,” he admitted. “The song was coming out well in audition and the scene was working well, but it needed movement. So I did research on how animals move and ultimately grabbed towels, wrapped myself in several and tromped around for hours, a kind of, ‘if you were cursed and had to carry that extra bulk around, how would you feel?’”

Then there’s the face. It takes up to two hours, sometimes more, to make up for the role.

“It’s a whole process,” explained Christopher. “Gateway has a great network of makeup artists and a strong attention to detail.”

“They take a whole mold of his face [to get the right fit],” Minutillo explained.

Christopher, who was raised as a Mennonite, is skilled at dialects. He tackled languages early in school and was able to easily manipulate sounds. At New Jersey City University, in a now defunct conservatory program where major coaches from places like Berkeley were tapped, some of his accents were perfected. He can do German, Irish, Midwest, New York, Scottish, Southern.

As for the Beast, “the voice is … beast,” he laughed.

The set itself is considered a star. “It’s the crown jewel of Gateway,” reported Scot Allan, Gateway’s director of development and public relations, who said it was acquired in 2000 and rented out regularly because of its exquisite details.

“It’s magical,” said Minutillo. “They didn’t have enough room to present it at The Gateway because the set continues over the seats; that’s why it’s being staged at the Patchogue Theatre.”

Minutillo’s work has been recognized by the New York Times. He’s a prolific member of the educational community and a recipient of the Rod Marriott Award, a lifetime achievement recognition from the New York State Theatre Education Association. Directing credits include Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and the June Havoc Theatre and Theater for the New City, both in Manhattan, and Guild Hall of East Hampton. He directed last year’s “A Christmas Story” for The Gateway, as well as numerous other productions.

No spoilers, but he did say this.

“We are trying to experiment with the transformation of the Beast back to the prince and it’s a little different than last time,” he said. “You put a touch in the direction, but you can’t change the lines and scenes. Of course, every set is different, every scene is different, the dancing is different because of the actors, but the basic storyline is there.”

He added that the classic pieces Disney chooses to develop are never like the original story.

“Belle had brothers,” Christopher interjected. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve wrote the original story in 1740 that included three brothers. The beast was called “bête,” which means unintelligible, and there were subplots, as well as several revisions over the years.

But Disney’s version, which emerged to movie and Broadway blockbuster proportions, must be adhered to. “They send agents to check the productions close to New York,” said Allan.

As for dancing, get ready for spirited, rousing, beautiful moves. There are 35 in the cast and they will all be out there in the “Be Our Guest” number.

Supporting cast includes Jonathan Hadley as Lumiere (Broadway Tour/“Jersey Boys”), Robert Anthony Jones as Cogsworth (Broadway Tour of “Finding Neverland,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “101 Dalmations Musical”), Teri Hansen as Mrs. Potts (Broadway Tour “An American in Paris,” TV’s “Orange is the New Black”), Joe Hager as Gaston (National Tour of “Beauty and the Beast”), Courter Simmons as LeFou (Broadway’s “Jersey Boys”), Steve Brady as Maurice (Broadway’s “Inherit the Wind”), Courtney Echols as Babette.

There are also some locals and Gateway Theatre Acting School alums including Roxy York, who originally hails from Sayville, as Madame Grand Bouche (National Tours “Beauty and the Beast,” “Annie” and “Flashdance”), and 9-year-old Marty Timlin from Yaphank as Chip (Gateway’s “A Christmas Story).

“It’s an epic,” commented Rosche of ‘Be Our Guest.’ “It’s eight dances in one.”

(Be prepared to hold up imaginary knives and forks while pivoting to the music.)

Rosche is legendary for her classes at Steps on Broadway that attract Broadway and Radio City dancers. Her choreography has energized “Palm Beach” at the La Jolla Playhouse, “A Novel Romance” and “Zona The Ghost of Greenbrier,” both Off-Broadway, and “Damn Yankees” at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Essex, Conn.

“There are so many character actors who move really well throughout,” she said.

The “Tale as Old as Time” scene with Belle and the Beast is a stunner. “It’s a very sweeping dance,” she said. “There’s a lot of lighting; it’s a romantic mood.”

Like a moment suspended in time?

“Every little girl is waiting for this,” added Christopher.

For tickets, call the box office at 631-286-1133, or visit online at TheGateway.org.

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