An air-conditioned rehearsal hall in Mumbai’s Andheri (West) suburb sounds like it’s the venue for a school picnic. An energetic and noisy group of actors, ranging from first-timers to theatre veterans, are standing in a circle and indulging in a dramatic exercise: a ‘reacting’ game in which they have to respond with a ‘hey’ or a ‘ho’ in blink-eye speed or they’re thrown out of the chain.
The camaraderie is evident. This is the cast for the upcoming stage version of the classic Beauty And The Beast, a traditional French fairy tale immortalised by Disney’s award-winning 1991 animated classic and, subsequently, its long-running Broadway adaptation.
As the reading begins, the actors — as though oblivious to the presence of a few journalists in the room — flick their ‘professional’ switches on and assume their characters, breaking every now and then to appreciate a colleague’s performance with applause or laughter. When it comes to the songs, the room fills up with the sound of strong, clear voices harmonising almost perfectly with each other and nearly drowning out the audio track playing through the hall’s Bose speakers.
The principal cast of 'Beauty And The Beast' engrossed in a script reading session
(From left) Actors Anil Chandiramani (playing Maurice) and Meher Mistry (playing Belle), during the reading
(From left) Radio host Brian Tellis (playing Lumiere) and actor/ad-man Krishna 'Bugs' Bhargava (playing Cogsworth), during the reading
They’ve all been rehearsing together since the end of May. “It’s been truly special,” says 26-year-old Meher Mistry, who plays the lead role of Belle (aka ‘Beauty’). “I’ve made one huge family working on Beauty And The Beast.” 21-year-old Edwin Joseph, who plays the role of Beast, agrees, “Every day is a humbling experience where you walk into rehearsals and are just in awe of everything happening around you.”
The first performances are scheduled to take place on October 23 and 30 at the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai. With roughly four weeks to show-time, their already gruelling routine is all set to get “only more rigourous”, says the show’s director Vikranth Pawar. The crew, which includes a principal cast of 18 people and a total of 100 performers, begins their day at around 6:30 am. Actors are put through vocal training, dance training, physical exercises, wire training for aerial stunts, and, of course, the small matter of actually rehearsing the play as well. “I don’t even know what day of the week it is anymore,” says 38-year-old Pawar, who has previously directed the Bollywood-based musicals Zangoora and Jhumroo, which have been staged at Kingdom Of Dreams in Gurgaon.
While musicals are not a new addition to the English theatre space in India — drama troupes in the metros have previously adapted the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, and West Side Story for urbane, English-speaking audiences — it is the first time it has been mounted on such a handsome scale. According to Pawar, this production of Beauty And The Beast is the largest of its kind that Disney has ever done, anywhere in the world.
The set, designed by Varsha Jain, features a 270-degree stage, ramps, and pathways that criss-cross between sections of the audience. “The idea was for the experience to be completely immersive,” says Pawar. “So, from the moment the play begins, you feel like you are in Belle’s village. Later, you are in Beast’s castle. You’ll see some of the action taking place within the audience, so some seats will also be able to swivel completely around so you don’t miss out on it.”
They practice on a rough replica of the set not too far away from the hall we’re in. The final set will not only facilitate aerial stunts with the help of wires, but will also use a combination of physical props and LED screens to create different kinds of spaces. Clearly, this is one theatrical production that doesn’t seem to be lacking in terms of a budget. “We’re looking at giving audiences the full experience,” says Jyotika Ahuja of Disney India. “If you’re going to put up a show like this, it has to be better than anything that has been done before.” They plan to have performances of the show in Delhi in another few months, followed by more in various Indian cities.
The final cast-members were selected from more than 8,000 applicants, over a process that went on for nearly three-and-a-half months. Pawar is full of praise for the cast, especially his young leads. “Meher [Mistry] is so good… she just lights up the stage with her presence,” he says. “Edwin [Joseph] is a real find. He’s going to blow people away.” While Mistry has been working as a stage actor and voice artiste for the past four years, Joseph, a trained operatic baritone singer, is a relative newcomer to professional theatre who, interestingly, gave up a two-year scholarship to study Western classical music in Paris for this part.
The cast members seem upbeat and are working hard on various aspects of their performances, including diction, projection, and dance. A Broadway-style production of this scale has never been attempted before in this country, but it seems like they might just pull this off. “We have the talent; we have great talent, actually,” says Pawar. “All we needed is a platform for them to shine. Something like this.”
Tickets for the Mumbai performances are now available.