x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Behind the scenes of Beauty and the Beast

Behind the scenes at rehearsals for Abu Dhabi Choral Group's performances of Beauty and the Beast.

Lele Tusitala, who plays the role of Beast, gets dressed for the rehearsal of <i>Beauty and the Beast</i>.
Lele Tusitala, who plays the role of Beast, gets dressed for the rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast.

"Are you a fork, a knife or a spoon?" asks one Abu Dhabi Choral Group member of another arriving at the British School gymnasium. "I'm a plate," the other replies. "Oh. I think you have to go through there," she points at a pair of swinging doors in the direction of the library. "Cutlery and all the Be My Guest ensemble are trying on their costumes." The plate gets up and wanders away. As the doors open and swing closed again, a voice floats through them: "If you're a piece of silverware, I need you in here."

Welcome to a rehearsal for the choral group's run of Beauty and the Beast, which opens tonight. Last week's practise marked one of the first full run-throughs, though it was moved from the Armed Forces Officers Club to the British School gym at the last minute because the club's stage was in use. The production is being helmed by Robert Liddington, an unflappable Briton who works for the Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company by day and becomes part luvvie, part amateur-theatre devotee by night. He's most well known in Abu Dhabi for his work with the Abu Dhabi Dramatic Society. "But there were other people in ADDS who want to direct," he says of his Beauty and the Beast stewardship. "I can't direct all the time. And I hadn't done a musical for a while so I thought this was a cool thing to do."

The classic fairy tale was made most familiar by the 1991 Disney film version, which won two Oscars (for Best Original Score and Best Song) and made history as the first-ever animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Can the Abu Dhabi Choral Group do it justice? "I'm actually feeling reasonably confident," says Liddington calmly as silverware swarms around him. The casting process and rehearsals started in January, after the choral group decided on Beauty and the Beast. "I suggested they do Hot Mikado, but they had two or three other proposals, one of which was Beauty and the Beast," Liddington says. "They decided to do that, and then asked if I wanted to direct it."

At first, he says, he wasn't happy to lose Hot Mikado, but the idea seems to have settled fairly quickly. "The group has around maybe 100 to 120 - well, not real members because it's a very loose group, but they called auditions and a bunch of people showed up." Liddington put them through their acting paces, and the musical director, Simon Greene, played the role of Simon Cowell and made them sing.

"We got together and said: 'OK, this person fits here, this person fits there.' But it's a musical so in terms of voices and things I had to allow Simon to make those decisions." The result was a cast of approximately 50 people, aged seven and up, although Liddington is clearly shaped by the "never work with children or animals" school of thought. While children are involved as puppeteers and dancers, there are none in the singing cast.

"In spite of the fact that they can do very good things, they can also be a pain," he breezes. That's them told. The run-through at the British School is the first time that some of the costumes are being used. Emma Wilmot, who is playing the part of Chip, stands to one side in the Beast's castle as her foam headpiece is tried on for size. Then, in struts Chris Lamar, who plays the part of the castle's talkative candlestick, Lumiere. He's wearing a multicoloured, stripy suit that will eventually be mounted with candles. Catcalls and whistles greet his entrance in the gymnasium hall. Erin Wicker, playing the flirty feather duster Fifi, bustles up and stands in front of Liddington for approval.

"That's great," he nods, before shouting that it's time to get started. "I want to do a full run-through for timing," he booms. The chorus and cast members dutifully take their places on the makeshift stage. The 10-member band due to play the score isn't in attendance, so the cast makes do with the odd note from a piano in the corner. The two leads, Belle and the Beast, are played by Katie Pritz and Lele Tusitala, respectively, neither of whom have been in the choral group's previous productions. Though they're clearly amateurs, Pritz sang throughout school and college, and Tusitala sings in a choir. And the acting skills of the pair are well matched: Pritz brings out Belle's dreamy nature, Tusitala prowls around the stage doubled over in a grump.

"It should be around two and a half hours," Liddington says four days later at the Armed Forces Officers Club, where a full dress rehearsal is about to kick off. It's a Saturday, so cast members are rolling up with coffees and croissants in hand, prepared for a full day of action. There is a problem, however, in that the stage is being used for a school's graduation ceremony rehearsal. "Because we're not paying for it, when they get paying customers they obviously have to displace us," Liddington sighs.

"Sweep the floor so everything is clean," he tells the stage manager, Angeleene Abraham, who asks about the situation backstage. "It only needs one person to trip over on a piece of wood or slip on sawdust and we've lost a cast member." Liddington pauses before adding dryly: "There are a few I might want to lose that way, but generally it's not a good idea." It's the first time Liddington has had the use of the Armed Forces Officers Club, a venue for which he's hugely grateful. "Everything you could ever dream of having in a theatre is here. You can fly 32 curtains at the back of the stage, which theoretically means you could have 32 scene changes. I can't remember a West End theatre like that."

The problem is that most of the stage mechanisms aren't working. Liddington brought a team of engineers down from his office some weeks earlier, and they found it much unloved. "They said there's nothing wrong with it," Liddington says. "They just didn't maintain it. Get it maintained and they said they could come back and make it work." With the support of the club, Liddington is hopeful that future productions could be based at the venue.

While the school rehearsal drags on, cast members are directed upstairs to practice music with the band under the exact guidance of their musical director. "We'll start at 12," shouts Greene, "and that's a Simon 12, not a Robert 12." The latter is apparently less exact than the former. Pritz directs the warm-up in an adjacent room. "Let's do some tongue twisters for good diction. We're telling a story after all," she says. Her charges dutifully intone: "Red leather, yellow leather."

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the stage, Pattie Gardebled, the wardrobe mistress, sifts through racks of clothes. "She's done the most amazing and spectacular job," Liddington says. "They're not the standard Disney ones because I didn't want them to be. I wanted to do something different, so Pattie turned my ideas into reality and has done a whole load more to make them sensible." Gardebeld says: "Robert didn't want anything stiff. He wanted it fluid."

Gardebeld isn't a tailor. "My background is art. I paint murals," she says, but a friend encouraged her to get involved with the production. To research, she avoided the Disney film, and instead watched clips of productions on YouTube. She also found inspiration in other films. "This dress is based on The Affair of the Necklace," she says pointing to a gold and maroon silk number that will be worn by Madame de la Grande Bouche, the operatic wardrobe.

"There are maybe 80 costumes," Gardebeld says, adding that they were made by seven tailors in Abu Dhabi. "One tailor visits my nightmares but generally it's been great." Pritz and Tusitala, are changing into their final outfits of the show, Pritz into a yellow ball-gown, and Tusitala into his Prince Charming garb. "I'm hoping that it's going to make me mum of the year," Pritz says of her role. Her husband has brought their three small children to the rehearsal, and they'll go to two of the performances as well. One of her daughters plans to watch in her very own Belle dress.

The night before, several cast members dressed in costume and went to Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall to promote the show. "We could dress up and say come to it," says Pritz as she and Pattie muse about where her dress needs to be taken up. "We couldn't actually sell tickets as that would have cost Dh3,000." The Al Jaheri Theatre at the Armed Forces Officers Club seats 600 people, and the cast are putting on six performances, one of which, the Saturday matinee, is for women and children only (with boys up to the age of 10 allowed). Therefore, 3,600 people are needed to support the run and make it a sell-out.

"It was much more of an issue to be doing this kind of stuff 15 or 20 years ago when there was almost nothing in terms of entertainment," Liddington says. "Now what it's about is, if you want a real community, which this isn't exactly yet, you have to have stuff like this going on. The Government has this 2020 plan to make Abu Dhabi a cultural and artistic centre, but you've got to have the man on the street being the man in the theatre."

He pauses as someone wanders up and tells him the theatre should be clear in 45 minutes. "We'll make a decision at 2," he shouts over the assembled bodies. Apparently a delayed dress rehearsal isn't the kind of thing to worry Liddington; the show will go on.

Beauty and the Beast opens tonight (May 5) at 8pm the Armed Forces Officers Club, Abu Dhabi. Further performances are tomorrow, Friday and Saturday at 8pm with matinees at 2pm on Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost Dh75, or Dh50 for the matinees.