Sixteen years ago, Disney went to Broadway.
The iconic film studio's animated movies had always essentially been musicals, adding many memorable tunes to the American songbook. So, although attention-grabbing, the Broadway bow of Beauty and the Beast seemed like a logical step.
Disney did Broadway the way it has done everything else: colorful and big.
In fact, it was too big for the Lexington Opera House, until now.
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This weekend, Disney finally makes its Opera House debut with a touring production that can fit into the 124-year-old theater.
"It was gargantuan in proportion," Opera House general manager Luanne Franklin said Tuesday. "But I believe they saw a need for it to have a life in smaller venues."
Disney's licensing of NETworks Productions to create a version of the show that can fit in smaller venues and the theater's 2008 renovation were the prime factors in making the Beauty and the Beast engagement possible.
"It's highly important to bring these shows to smaller venues in the country," said Jason Juenker, production manager for NETworks, which also produced the Wizard of Oz tour that visited the Opera House last fall, and The Producers and Hairspray productions that visited Central Kentucky in recent seasons. "Not everyone can get to New York or Chicago to see the show."
A lot of the problems with getting Beauty and the Beast into smaller theaters relate to the size of scenery and the amount of backstage space required to accommodate it.
Many shows tend to use "flown" scenery, which is hoisted above the stage when it is not in use. This production uses more "ground" scenery, which is rolled in and out, Juenker says. That plays to an advantage of the Opera House renovation, which gave the theater more floor space backstage, particularly on the right side of the stage.
Juenker says that although the show has had to scale down, the magic is there, particularly in costuming and lighting.
"The beauty of the show is in Natasha Katz's lighting," Juenker said, referring to the Tony Award-winning designer whose work for Beauty and The Little Mermaid was nominated for Tonys.
Having waited 16 years to arrive does put Beauty in the unusual position, for a relatively new show, of having been performed here by local companies before the professional tour arrived.
The School for Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School presented it on the Opera House stage in 2006, and Lexington Children's Theatre mounted a production in summer 2008, featuring Miles Meehan, a Lexington actor who played Chip in the first national tour of the show, as villainous Gaston. Scott County High School just wrapped up a production of Beauty, which has become a favorite of school theaters.
But Franklin is not worried about local performances blunting attendance.
"While I have the utmost respect for our local artists, this is the Disney and NETworks professional production," said Franklin, who has worked as a choreographer with many school and community groups. "Even the people who have been in those productions want to come see this."
The Opera House has now broken through with Disney, but Franklin and Juenker say that some of the big — read that word in several ways — shows, including Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, remain out of reach.
But as for Disney shows, which include The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, Juenker says, "I'm sure Beauty and the Beast won't be the last."