Certain as the sun, rising in the east, musicals are on stage in high schools across America this spring, and we spent our first visit Saturday at the closing night of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County.
As the title song goes, rendered tunefully here with an airy and uplifting spirit by Mrs Potts (Emily Flach), the tales that are told on these stages are as old as time and the songs that are sung as old as rhyme.
And while musicals may be as regular and recurring at high schools as falling in love is in, well, just about every place, the set at Perry Hall was anything but regular, featuring an enormous backdrop, painted to show the insides of the Beast’s castle, with winding staircases and other elaborate ornamentation—a true work of art in its own right (Nick Beverati, set design; Kayla Sturgis, stage manager).
A beast of a distinctly non-musical character came to the high school in 2012 when a student opened fire on his peers during the school day. He was subsequently sentenced to 35 years in prison. The Beast’s castle also features a prison cell in the dungeon, where he temporarily holds Belle’s father captive until she sacrifices her own freedom to secure his release.
Shortly after that, Belle (Alexis Arthur) returns home to look for her father and then discovers she was wrong about the Beast:
For in my dark despair, I slowly understood
My perfect world out there had disappeared for good.
But in its place I feel a truer life begin.
And it’s so good and real, it must come from within.
And her “inner beauty,” that stuff that renders our actions and character more relevant than our looks, shines through with every note. Our identity becomes fulfilled in our nurturing of relationships, not in our outward signs like looks or wit. Never has that been more apparent than in this love story, where a beautiful voice prevails in the face of antics and outward appearances that fool village girls and other townspeople at every turn.
Mrs Potts exemplifies the identity crisis at the heart of this paradoxical juxtaposition. She was once a human being, and now she’s a teapot. Yet the dialog never ceases to portray her—and all the lamps, wardrobes, and beasts—as fully human. They maintain their memories, their dreams, their hopes, and their longing for unselfish love.
Ms Arthur brings to Belle a smooth and swelling voice that fits her role as an antagonist, because she sings straight to our hearts about the show’s many themes, just as she sings to the Beast and to herself. Her tunes are unfailingly self-reflective and soft, as she pays no mind to the braggadocio of Gaston (a well-crafted Mekhi Dashiell) but instead tends to the inner character of the show’s many protagonists.Book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. In performance Friday and Saturday, March 1–2, at Perry Hall High School in Perry Hall, Maryland. Directed by Andrew Worthington, pit orchestra directed by Scott Engel, musical direction by Stephanie Plitt. Brian Kraft and Emma Smith, student directors.