Millburn, NJ, would never be mistaken for New York City. With its quaint downtown and tree-lined neighborhood streets, the region is a far cry from the hectic pace of the Big Apple. Nonetheless, theater lovers can attend shows that mimic Broadway in style and substance at the town’s iconic Paper Mill Playhouse, where currently Beauty and the Beast is captivating audiences of all ages.
Directed by Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee, Beauty and the Beast is a masterful piece of artistic workmanship that rivals the original Broadway production at all levels. Everything, from the rich rubato of Michael Borth’s talented orchestra to the innovative choreography of Alex Sanchez, flows so smoothly that one can only imagine this is a production that took months to assemble. Not so, according to Hoebee. “We actually had only two and a half weeks of rehearsal,” he said. Spoken like a man who understands the limitations of regional theater.
Now in his 19th year at Paper Mill Playhouse, the last ten of which he has served as Producing Artistic Director, Hoebee is the consummate professional. He and a very skilled staff have overseen the resurrection of the playhouse which almost closed in 2007. The theater now boasts a growing subscriber list of 22,000, no small task by any means. “We reinvented ourselves by aligning more closely with the community we serve,” he said. “We now have very loyal patrons.”
Located east of Newark only 20 miles from New York City, the Paper Mill Playhouse reaps the artistic benefits associated with being in such close proximity to Manhattan’s famed Theater District. “We have access to the highest level of talent,” explained Hoebee. “This includes both actors and musicians along with other skilled staff that are needed in order to produce high quality shows.”
Beauty and the Beast is a prime example. From the moment the overture begins, you can sense that you are about to be swept away by something magical. The eye popping scenery of Kelly James Tighe and lavish costume design of Leon Dobkowski are every bit “Broadway,” and not a single hair is out of place thanks to Leah J. Loukas. However, once you get past all of the glitz and glamour, it’s the acting and singing that take center stage.
An electrifying cast, most of whom have Broadway credits, is headed by Belinda Allyn (Belle) and Tally Sessions (Beast) and superbly supported by Stephen Mark Lukas (Gaston), Jenelle Chu (Babette), Joel Blum (Maurice), Kevin Ligon (Cogsworth), Kevin Curtis (Lefou) and Stacia Fernandez (Mrs. Potts). Unlike many musicals where one dominant performer can overpower the rest of the cast, each actor here complements each other with precise timing and a gracious stage presence.
Currently celebrating its 80th season, Paper Mill Playhouse stays true to its mission of serving the community by producing New Voices, an annual summer concert showcase that brings together 120 of New Jersey’s brightest young stars who train with top pros in singing, dancing and acting. The renowned program has kickstarted the careers of Anne Hathaway and Jelani Remi, to name a few. Also, each year the playhouse presents Rising Star Awards to students at high schools throughout the state who shined during their school’s plays.
Hoebee is perhaps most proud of the fact that the theater is a national leader in access for people with disabilities, and seven years ago they began a program for children with autism. “We provide a judgment free environment for families dealing with children on the spectrum to enjoy an afternoon or evening of theater together,” he said.
Of its five productions scheduled for the 2019-20 season, three are originals and include Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which will highlight the very best hits of one of the most popular musical theater composers of all time. Sister Act and Cinderella, two long standing favorites, are also scheduled.
Paper Mill Playhouse epitomizes the essence of regional theater, which brings people together in ways that enhance the entire makeup of the community it serves.
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