Michael Disher took a deep breath. What he said next would be considered, by some, heresy.
“I’m not the biggest Disney fan,” he sighed, and before any possible interjection, he quickly rattled off, “I know, I know, I know — then why am I directing a production of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ right? It’s not that I find it disagreeable; it’s just something that hasn’t necessarily appealed to me before. And yet, here I am, in my 60s, and I guess I’m more seduced by charm than I used to be.”
The tale as old as time is, arguably, the biggest Disney musical Broadway has ever seen — and Disher’s first, he said — opening Friday night with a cast of familiar characters at the Southampton Cultural Center and marking the end of Center Stage’s 10th anniversary season.
Set in a small French kingdom, the story begins with a curse. A disguised enchantress transforms a selfish prince into a hideous beast, warning him that if he does not learn to love, and be loved, by the time the last petal from an enchanted rose falls, he will remain a beast forever.
“Let’s face it: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is really a very simple story. It’s not extremely complex and involved. It’s a very charming story, it’s a very endearing story, but it’s a fairy tale,” Disher said. “So how do you take a rather simplistic story and turn it into something that’s lush and that’s large? And as it is in this particular incarnation, that’s with a terrific score and terrific choreography.”
The iconic Alan Menken/Howard Ashman score, performed by Center Stage’s largest orchestra to date, carries the show, as do a host of beloved inanimate objects — Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and Chip — and the titular roles.
“I knew I wanted three people desperately for the show, and everything else was wide open,” Disher said. “So many people came to me and said, ‘Well obviously you have someone cast for Belle,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t. I’m flying by the seat of my pants and hoping that I get close to what I see at auditions,’ and I did.”
The director was looking for a strong woman with a good voice, who had a sense of knowing what she wants and was unafraid of adventure.
He found it in Mary Sabo — “She was kind of born to be a Disney princess,” he said — and when he paired her opposite Darren Ottati as the Beast, he saw the potential for on-stage sparks and the romance he had envisioned.
“With every rehearsal, she just becomes a little bit stronger and the interaction between she and Darren is growing,” Disher said. “I needed Darren’s voice to cover particularly the Act I finale, ‘If I Can’t Love Her.’ It’s just such a huge soaring ballad, and Darren was the only one I knew who could handle that.
“And this has been a challenge for Darren because Darren is so likeable and he’s such a loveable puppy of a man that being someone who is so angry over what has been thrust upon him — not only through his actions, but through the enchantment — it’s been work for him,” the director continued. “It’s been work for everyone.”
By casting 21 local actors, Disher built a village — ranging from age 8 to mid-60s, each with a different shape or size, and each with at least two costumes, or in some cases, up to four.
“This is the biggest costume show I’ve ever done at Center Stage, period, hands down — huge, humungous and a chore that I would not wish upon my worst enemy. Really,” Disher said. “It was putting it together piece by piece, not even costume by costume. Piece by piece. I started reaching out to companies that rent the costumes, and either they didn’t have the sizes, or the rental fees were ridiculous, up to $250 per costume per week. One company down in Texas was going to do me a favor and rent me most of the show for just $5,000.”
With that, Disher got to work, sourcing many of the pieces from the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, he said, describing them as a “godsend.”
But they weren’t a one-stop shop.
Lumiere’s hands came in from California, and Cogsworth’s pendulum was made in Indiana. The Beast mask was handmade in Ohio, fit to Ottati’s measurements. And pieces of the villager costumes were shipped from India.
“I swear, I am just looking forward to the day when I can go to the post office and not have a yellow slip in my box saying, ‘Come get your boxes,’” Disher said. “But, the end product, I have to tell you, is dazzling. Dazzling. So many rich velvets and brocades. I wanted the costumes to reflect the romance of the piece, and my goodness, they are exquisite.”
A week before curtain, with two of the matinees nearly sold out, Disher has a new respect for the musical — “With this particular show, yes, I have completely changed my mind – completely,” he said. “Everything about it works beautifully” — but he wouldn’t say that he’s a Disney convert per se.
“Laughingly, someone said to me, ‘Oh so what’s next year, “Lion King?”’ And I was like, ‘Don’t even hex me. Don’t even. Don’t.’ Where do you even go for a giraffe?”
He laughed. “Right now, I want this to raise the bar again, as far as musicals out here, because I am very proud of the fact that I have 21 community members who have sacrificed an awful lot of time, have clocked more miles than I care to count, and not a single person is union,” he said. “This production is all about community and dare I say community theater at its finest.”
The Center Stage production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” will open on Friday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, located at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton. Additional performances will be held on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., through March 25.
The cast includes: Marco Barrila, Daniel Becker, Michael Casper, Julie Crowley, Bethany Dellapolla, Gabriel DiFrancesco, Jonathan Fogarty, Adam Fronc, Joey Giovingo, Eli Jones, Katrina Lovett, Pamela Morris, Tom Rosante, Michaal Lyn Schepps, Anna Schiavoni, Alyssa Semken, Amanda Summers and Darren Ottati as The Beast and Mary Sabo as Belle. Michael Disher directs and Amanda Jones musically directs.
Tickets are $28 and $15 for students under age 21 with ID. For more information, please call (631) 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.