Lehigh Valley Summer Theater: Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre to pull out all the stops for opener, Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’
Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT) promises spectacle with a big, splashy family show, a stage-filling classic Frank Loesser musical, and the high-flying acrobatics of a modern circus.
“It’s going to be a very happy summer,” says MSMT artistic director Charles Richter. “There will be lots of premiere performing.”
The 38th season kicks off with Disney’s Broadway musical, “Beauty and the Beast,” June 14 to July 1. The production will feature lavish scenic design, spectacular special effects, and “a touch of Disney magic,” says Richter.
“We’ve been trying to get the rights for years,” Richter says of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I’m a great fan of the piece and it will allow us to show off our stagecraft chops. This will be one of the largest and most spectacular shows we’ve ever done.”
“Beauty and the Beast” broke barriers in 1991 as the first animated feature nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture. Disney brought it to Broadway in 1994, where it ran for more than 5,000 performances during 13 years. Since then, the stage version has traveled the world, playing in more than 30 countries, to audiences of more than 50 million.
The musical tells the familiar story of Belle, a beautiful, bookish young woman from a small, provincial village, and the Beast, a vain young prince trapped under a spell. Can they break the curse in time, or are the Beast and his enchanted household forever doomed?
Richter says the popular family show has a beautiful score that combines Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1991 film score with new songs by Menken and Tim Rice. Songs include “Be Our Guest,” “Home” and “Beauty and the Beast,” accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra.
Richter says MSMT has tapped professional illusionist and 1997 Muhlenberg College alumni David Caserta, who appeared on the TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” to be a “magic consultant.”
Caserta, a Moore Township resident, will not only oversee the Beast’s transformation but will add lots of magical moments to the show.
“We have specialists in all areas,” Richter says. “Muhlenberg has become a training ground for top design talent on Broadway and elsewhere.”
“Beauty and the Beast” choreographer Ann Cooley has worked on Broadway and as a rehearsal director for the Rockettes and makeup designer Joe Dulude II, who has worked on makeup-heavy Broadway shows, including “Wicked” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
The musical’s scenic designer Edward T. Morris, who also did scenic design for MSMT 2017 season’s “My Fair Lady,” is creating a “lush” environment for the characters, with a storybook feel.
“It’s always a thrill to see what we can produce,” Richter says. “This is a chance to strut our stuff.”
The musical is helmed by award-winning director Gary John La Rosa, whose more than 150 production directing credits include National Tours of “Footloose” and “Beehive.”
Also on board are music director Ed Bara and lighting designer Gertjan Houben, a two-time Tony nominee.
Alan Mendez, a 2017 Muhlenberg graduate, plays the Beast and is excited to work with La Rosa.
“The goal is to have a familiar feel but with a renewed sense of characters as people and not just cartoons,” Mendez says. “I was excited to hear Gary’s [LaRosa] idea to find something new in the show and explore the influences of the original fairytale.”
Joining Mendez as Belle is Muhlenberg College sophomore Ashley Hiester. Long-time Muhlenberg favorite Neil Hever plays Maurice. Robert Fahringer, who played Alfred Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” last season, returns as Cogsworth.
Muhlenberg Summer Theatre welcomes back Broadway star, TV personality and Muhlenberg College alumni Frankie Grande, to star in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a comic send-up of corporate life in the 1960s, July 11-29.
“We wanted to wanted to do “How to Succeed in Business” for many years but we needed a big star to do it,” Richter says. “I called Frankie, who had starred in ‘Crazy for You’ in 2013, and it turns out he’s a big fan of Frank Loesser.”
Richter, who directs “How to Succeed,” says the show, which won a Tony Award for Best Musical and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, deals with the changes in gender relationships that were taking place in the 1960s.
“It has a jaundiced view of gender relations and things are viewed in a very ironic way,” Richter says. “There is the issue of sexual harassment and people’s desires to fit in standard molds. I think it will hold up well.”
The musical follows the rise of J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious young businessman working as a window washer for the World Wide Wicket Corporation. By using tips and tricks from a handy little handbook, Finch quickly rises through the ranks until he finds himself in the executive suite only to learn there are more important things in life than pursuing one’s ambition.
Grande, a 2005 Muhlenberg grad, stars as Finch. He has appeared on Broadway in “Rock of Ages” and “Mamma Mia!” and finished fifth during the 16th season of the CBS reality TV competition “Big Brother.”
“I’m extremely excited about returning to my alma mater, working with my amazing professors, and being part of Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance once again,” Grande says.
Meredith Kate Doyle, who played Eliza Doolittle in MSMT’s 2017 production of “My Fair Lady,” returns to play Finch’s love interest Rosemary. Also returning to the Muhlenberg stage are Peter Schmidt as company president J.P. Biggley, and Samantha Simon, who previously appeared in MSMT’s “Street Scenes” as sexy secretary Hedy LaRue.
The score, written by Loesser following the success of “Guys and Dolls,” includes the songs “I Believe in You,” “Company Way” and “Brotherhood of Man.”
Musical direction is by Bryan L. Wade, choreography by Karen Dearborn, scenic design by John Raley, and costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski.
Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre again partners with Atlas Circus Company this summer for “Tal: Beyond Imagination,” a world-premiere circus piece for all ages, June 27 to July 29. The show, a tale of dreamers who gaze up at the stars in search of something more, features aerial acrobatics, juggling, comedy, and magic. A free 45-minute circus workshop follows each performance.
Richter says that Atlas’s record-setting production “Wild,” was so well-received for the 2017 season that MSMT decided to invite back the company, created by 2016 Muhlenberg College graduate Noah Dach.
“My aim with this show is to bring the audience and cast together in such a way that they experience the show together,” says Dach. “I think it will resonate for a lot of people.”
There will be accessible performances for the three MSMT productions. Audio description and open captioning will be available for “Beauty and the Beast,” June 24, and for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” July 15, each at 2 p.m. A sensory-friendly performance of “Tal: Beyond Imagination” for children with autism and other sensory processing challenges, is at 10 a.m. June 30 and July 25. Information about accessible performances is available at firstname.lastname@example.org; 484-664-3087.
Tickets: Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre and Dance box office, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, 2400 Chew St., Allentown; muhlenberg.edu/theatre; 484-664-3333