Sean Donnelly and Kaitlyn Yott play the Beast and Belle in the pantomime version of Beauty and the Beast. Below: Makeup artist Leigh Burton applies a moustache to Tammy ‘Pierre’ Theis. Director Mike Balser talks to the actors on stage. Paul (‘Antoine’) Rowell finds time to toy with a sword before rehearsal.

It was the Beast of times…

Behind the scenes of Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of Beauty and the Beast, which opened this week in Surrey.

Kaitlyn Yott makes no bones about it: Belle in Beauty and the Beast is a dream role for her.

“It was my favourite movie when I was a kid,” the recent Earl Marriott Secondary (EMS) graduate said.

Although the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society production in which she takes the female lead is a decidedly different, Christmas pantomime version of the tale popularized by the Disney cartoon, she’s still glad for the chance to portray a character she’s always looked up to.

“Belle isn’t the usual princess role,” she explained.  “She’s someone who sticks to her own values about life, and when she falls in love, she falls for what’s on the inside – not what’s on the outside.”

There’s a certain childish glee to being cast as Belle, too, she admits.

“When I tried on the yellow dress the first time that little five-year-old in me came out – ‘I’m a princess!’ ”

The closest she came to the role before was being cast as Chip the perky little cup in the 2010 EMS production – which was a stage version of the Disney film.

While she won praise for a charming and touching performance, there’s no doubt she’s revelling in the opportunity to finally be Belle.

But it goes deeper than that. Yott, who loves to sing, is determined to pursue a career on the stage, and plans to audition for a post-secondary theatre program.

“I’d like to get a performance degree in musical theatre,” she said. “Being on stage is the greatest feeling in the world. Any time I’m performing, the voice in my head is telling me this is what I’m supposed to do.”

Before going into more formal training, she’s getting as much experience as she can in as many genres as possible – which aside from the fun quotient, was one of her principal motives for auditioning for the G&S show.

“It’s my first time doing panto – a very different style of theatre in which you’re always interacting with the audience,” she said.

“Unlike other plays in which the script is everything, you’re encouraged to stray from it and play on the energy of the audience – it’s been a very enriching experience.”

Also enriching, she said, have been her forays into Shakespeare – she played Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet in her last year at EMS, followed by Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Delta-based Knockout Theatre.

“It’s one of my favourite styles of theatre,” Yott said. “His language speaks to me and I love performing it.”

She also gained very different experience in Smile, The Musical for Vancouver-based youth company Awkward Stage Productions.

“That was taking this ’80s musical flop and rebirthing it – and all the adult roles were represented by puppets, which we also operated.”

Pantomime or not, Beauty and the Beast, directed by FVGSS veteran Mike Balser, depends a lot on the chemistry between Belle and her hairy inamorata, and Yott says she’s glad to be working with co-star Sean Donnelly.

“He’s insanely talented and he’s got an amazing voice,” she said. “I feel like we’ve developed a lot of chemistry. It’s been very enjoyable – he’s a really great guy, which is good because we have to, essentially, fall in love on stage and he’s never made it weird.”

“I think it’s really clicking,” said Donnelly, son of famed anthem singer and musical educator Mark and brother of soprano Colleen who has, herself, contributed memorable performances to a number of  FVGSS shows (“When you come from my family, you pretty much have to know how to sing and read music,” he noted).

He said he is enjoying working with Yott too.

“We come from really different backgrounds, as far as performance styles,” he said. “I’ve done a lot more singing, but she’s done a lot more acting and dancing. It’s been interesting playing to each other’s strengths and seeing how that developed.”

For someone raised on ‘liturgical polyphony’ – he’s also a member of an eight-voice choir devoted to lesser known works of Renaissance composer Pierluigi da Palestrina – it’s been a stretch working with ’70s and ’80s pop songs like Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again, Naturally and The Time Of My Life (from Dirty Dancing), he admitted.

“I also get to dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller,” Donnelly added.

But, while he’s done Gilbert & Sullivan chorus roles in the past, he’s having a great time in his first panto, he acknowledges.

If things had gone according to the original plan, Donnelly, also a talented hockey goalie, would be on the ice rather than the stage this winter.

“The Christmas pantomime is right in the middle of hockey season,” he said.

But Donnelly, who completed a first year at Waltham College in Massachusetts on a hockey scholarship, has decided to take a time-out for a year to re-evaluate the direction of his post-secondary studies.

“It was really a last minute decision to audition,” he said. “I’d just decided I wasn’t going back to school, when I was talking to a friend in FVGSS – and he said if I was going to be in town, I should audition.”

He’s glad he did, although he admits that working with the wigs, make-up and bulked-up costume has produced its share of challenges.

But he’s trying to let that work for the character, he said.

“It’s really the same thing the Beast is going through – he’s about more than what’s going on the exterior. He has to be able to get past that to convey his inner emotions to Belle.”

Evening performances of Beauty and the Beast are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays until Dec. 4 at the Surrey Arts Centre (13750 88 Ave.) with matinées Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, visit tickets.surrey.ca or call 604-501-5566.

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