“Beauty and the Beast, Jr.” Enchants at Mary Henderson Middle School

By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

Belle (Emma Hart) and Villagers
Photo by Jennifer Oeschger

It’s impossible not to love this marvelously entertaining production of “Beauty and Beast, Jr.” staged and produced by the students and faculty of Mary Henderson Middle School in Falls Church, Va. Full disclosure: my brilliant granddaughter, Greta Hermann, played the Hatseller, who, I swear, lit up the stage in her minor, but to me, pivotal role. OK, OK, so I’m a little biased, but for her family who were there in force, she simply sparkled in her role. Ahem. Now, back to the real business at hand. What was the rest of the show like?

Gaston (Phi Oeschger) and LeFou (Noah Hefferman)
Photo by Jennifer Oeschger

It was truly magical. And I’m saying that as a reviewer, not a grandmother. I hadn’t planned to review this production, but the production values were so high, the casting so good, the costumes so well-crafted and perfect for this production, the cast of seventy-seven so well trained and the stage set so completely workable, although minimal, I was charmed and thrilled to see what wonderful teaching, coaching, costuming and choreography can do. And, remember, this is middle school!

Heretofore, I have only written in my Sara’s Showbitz column about senior high school productions which I feel are of such high quality the general public would enjoy seeing them. I couldn’t imagine ever seeing a (what?) middle school production that could actually bring me to my feet for a standing “O.” But that’s what I found here in Falls Church. This production makes me feel that the future of the American Musical Theatre is in good hands, at least here with these caring and talented teachers and hardworking students and parents. And, I hope, oh please, oh please, in other schools as well.

Cogsworth (Henry Boland) and Lumiere (Bella Paradiso)
Photo by Jennifer Oeschger

Lisa M. Gross directed “Beauty and the Beast, Jr.” and brought out the best in every single student who appeared on stage—and there were lots of them! Her Belle and Beast acquitted themselves well, with nice singing voices and Belle, especially, had a lovely singing voice and sweet stage presence. Her last act costume, of course, brought down the house! And speaking of costumes—oh, my! I could go on and on, about the (as listed in the program) Genius Costume Designer, Jennifer Oeschger. She and her marvelous core of mothers (including our daughter, Molly Hermann) and other generous people, donated their time and talents to crafting these intricate, inventive and eye-catching costumes. Thankfully, Jennifer sent me some photos to accompany this article, so you can see how beautiful they are and perfect for this age group, not to mention evoking memories of the movie and the Broadway show. And, I assume, this was done on a shoe-string budget! Of special mention should be Lumiere’s costume of straight-from-Vegas gorgeous shiny gold stretch pants and a jacket to match, with perfectly crafted and always- lit candlestick hands.

Gaston (Phi Oeschger) and Villagers
Photo by Jennifer Oeschger

In case you have unfortunately been living under a rock for about 30 years, here are the Cliff Notes of this “Tale as Old as time”. The Jr. simply means the story has been abridged and shortened to accommodate the ages of the cast. The story: Smart, bookish girl, Belle, (played by the winsome and lovely Emma Hart) is pursued by boorish Gaston, (Phi Oeschger, who in this iteration is a wonderfully talented young girl in a trouser role that really works), and his/her sidekick, Lefou, (hilariously played by Noah Heffernan). Belle misplaces her dotty inventor father, (adorable Matthew Bloss-Baum), who ends up being held prisoner in the beast’s castle. The beast is actually a handsome prince who was put under an awful spell because of his lack of civility to a local witch (Olivia Rissetto, a very shady lady), and was turned into an even nastier furry beast (played by handsome heartthrob, Bobby Miller). Eventually, Belle finds her father and begs the beast to replace him with her in the dungeon, so her father can return to their little village.

The castle staff, who were also turned into representations of their former jobs—Lumiere (the candelabra, who truly lit up the stage as portrayed by Bella Paradiso), Cogsworth (a fabulous representation of an antique clock played hilariously by Henry Boland), Mrs. Potts, the teapot (played by Angela Lansbury’s voice in the Disney animated movie and here beautifully sung and acted by Eva Williams), Chip, (adorably portrayed by Inigo Diz), Babette, (the wonderfully entertaining Ellie O’Neill), and finally, Madame De La Grande Bouche (sung beautifully by Maeve Dodge), also help Belle find her way to loving the beast and freeing him of the awful spell. All dance and sing joyeously!

The singing, dancing, and entertainment value of an evening like this is priceless, not only for the family members of this amazing cast, but for friends and locals who just want to see what it was all about. However, for these young people to experience what may be a life-changing moment where they feel powerful or vulnerable on stage—it’s a marvelous learning experience perhaps like no other. You might want to venture out into your neighborhoods and see what your local schools are doing. Who knows, you might happen upon a beautiful gem, just as I did!

Performance Information: Through February 24 at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, 7130 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA. Tickets available at the door. Show time: 7 pm.