On a searing October afternoon, the temporarily erected air-conditioned set at Chitrakoot grounds, Andheri, is like a gateway to a fantasy land. Inside, it’s dark, except for the brightly illuminated stage, with its life-size installations of a castle, a tavern, a mini bridge and trees. This is the enchanting world of Beauty and the Beast — Disney’s Academy award-winning animated film, and Broadway production that is being adapted for the Indian stage for the first time.
As smoke billows from the ramp, Gaston, the antagonist, swaggers in with his retinue of giddy village girls and announces his plans to woo Belle. Proceeding to Belle’s hut, Gaston croons: “You’ve been dreaming, just one dream, nearly all your life, hoping, scheming, just one theme: Will you be a wife?” as Belle emerges to counter his advances. As the production readies to premiere in Mumbai on October 23, the show’s director Vikranth Pawar reveals that the
18-member cast was picked after sieving through 8,000 applications and holding auditions in five cities. It was in 2012, when Pawar joined Disney India as the creative head for live entertainment, that they toyed with the idea of a Broadway-esque production. “Our research revealed that families in metros were hungry for inventive content. And what better than theatre to fill that void,” he says. The success of Zangoora — also directed by Pawar — at Kingdom of Dreams in Gurgaon, showed that audiences were open to newer formats.
Barring the original script and music, everything about the musical is new. While the sets feature the same elements, they have been re-imagined by set designer Varsha Jain. In fact, this is the first time that any audience will have a 270-degree view of the stage, courtesy swivel chairs. Singer Lesle Lewis, of Colonial Cousins fame, has recreated the iconic music with a special orchestra, while Gavin Miguel has lent his touch to the costumes, incorporating intricate hand embroidery on Belle’s yellow gown and Beast’s blue jacket. “Beauty and the Beast is a great show, with universal resonance. We wanted to live up to the Broadway-style format, so we’ve employed the latest technology, hydraulics and re-imagined the sets and costumes. With an all-new cast, the flavour of the performances will be very different,” says Pawar, adding that the Indian adaptation will have over 100 performers.
The team’s journey — from the auditions to acting, body language workshops, costume trials and the final rehearsals — has been rather challenging. “Even if you wake us up at midnight, we can mouth our dialogues, it’s like muscle memory now,” says Edwin Joseph, who plays Beast. The 21-year-old Economics graduate from St Stephens college in Delhi was chosen after his rendition of the film’s eponymous title track, which featured the famous ballroom sequence between Belle and the Beast. “I did theatre in college, but I’m not professionally trained. This experience dwarfs everything I’ve done before. From the aerial training to the physical rigour, the transition was immense,” he says. The prosthetic make-up, which would take up to three hours every day, also helped him get into the skin of the character. “There’s a general burden on the body, you are becoming someone who’s not human. The emotional graph of the character and that ability to touch people stayed with me,” he says.
Unlike Thomas, Meher Mistry, who plays Belle, is a professional theatre actor from Mumbai who has starred in productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Stories in a Song and James Aur Ek Giant Peach. “Beauty and the Beast helped me grow not just as an artiste, but also as a singer and dancer,” she says. And as the premiere nears, Pawar hopes the production proves inspirational. “It will hopefully do wonders for the ecosystem of theatre and live entertainment in India,” he says.