Disney is in the fairy tale business. They produce and deliver tidy, reliable stories in which true love always triumphs, tragedy is averted, and evil is routinely defeated — usually with the help of a predictable lineup of transmogrifying princes, bumbling sidekicks, beautiful ingenues, adorable animals and magicians … all of whom are gifted musically.
A year ago, Emily Behny and Dane Agostinis were two anonymous young actors. Then they won leading roles in Beauty and the Beast.
And though some dour types have criticized the company for setting children’s life expectations impossibly high, exponentially more people have found beauty, inspiration and escape in these stories. They are not the cause of dashed hopes; they are their antidote.
Every so often, though, Disney stories can even become vehicles for real-life fairy tales.
So, once upon a time, there was a handsome young actor named Dane Agostinis. He’d had roles in mid-sized stagings of Oklahoma!, The Full Monty, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and even Debbie Does Dallas (the musical, that is, not the decidedly un-Disney blue movie). But, like most actors, he was waiting for a big break, something that would catapult him to relative stardom.
Then one day in late 2010 he went to an open casting audition for Beauty and the Beast. It wasn’t just any production. It was a touring “re-imagining” of the long-running Broadway hit musical, which won a Tony Award and was nominated for eight others. It was led by original Beauty and the Beast theatrical director Rob Roth and choreographed and designed by the rest of the original Broadway team.
“At that time I guess they weren’t really looking for anybody, but they like to have auditions throughout the year to just keep people on file,” says Agostinis from his hotel room in Edmonton, Alberta. “So I kind of left it like, OK, this isn’t really panning out.
“But the first week of January , I got called in, and then I found out that I got the job on January 13,” he says, “What’s funny about that is the re-release 3D movie of Beauty and the Beast is coming out that same day in 2012. So it’s kind of like a ‘meant-to-be’ thing.”
Agostinis was cast as the Beast. Still in his 20s and green by Broadway’s high standards, he immediately felt the pressure of a leading role in a national whistle-stop production; the long history of his character in film, theater and literature; and the iconic status of the Disney productions. He knew how many people of all ages could instantly envision the enchanted dinnerware and furniture singing “Be Our Guest” in the 1991 animated film. He knew how many earnest little girls came to the shows in their trademark Belle dresses.
“I decided to not think about it,” he says. “I mean, I understand that it’s there and I respect it, but if I were to harp on it every day, then I wouldn’t be able to go forward, and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy what I’m doing. I’d be trying to do somebody else’s show all the time, or just trying to live up to something that’s impossible.”
He and the director worked to make the role entirely his own by accentuating the comedic qualities of the spellbound prince. It was a unique spin that disappointed some but charmed others, including a powerful Hollywood king named Tom Cruise and his small royal family, who attended Agostinis’ debut performance in Los Angeles.
“I get a lot of people saying, ‘You made the Beast funny, and I don’t remember him being funny in the movie.’ If I’m doing my job correctly, Belle is supposed to fall in love with the Beast. If he’s just mean and scary and angry the entire time, I don’t see that as a possibility for her. The Beast is trying to become a person.”
Not far away, in the same kingdom of New York City, there was a fair maiden named Emily Behny. She was fresh out of college and, by a similar stroke of good fortune, she was chosen from among 300 actresses to appear opposite Agostinis as Belle.
“I’d always dreamed of playing Belle,” she says, also from Edmonton. “It just so happened that the first auditions after I had moved [to New York] was Beauty and the Beast. And then I booked it. It is a huge blessing.”
Behny was unaware of Agostinis until the two of them were called in for an unrelated reading on another project. The pair might not have floated across the ballroom as her jealous stepsisters looked on, but they hit it off in a way that made their onstage romance all the more magical.
“There’s a true connection between the Beast and me — even when I don’t like him that much — up until the point where I fall in love with him. I think that chemistry is very well played.”
“I absolutely adore Emily,” says Agostinis. “She has been the definite anchor in my performance. We always have said that whenever we’re distracted, we can always just look into each other’s eyes and breathe and get right back into what we need to do. It’s friendship and love and workmanship on stage. I couldn’t ask for better. “
Like Agostinis’ take on Beast, Behny opted to play Belle in a way that brought new qualities to the character.
“I make her more relatable to the everyday person. I think I bring my own quirkiness to the role, and I add more feistiness. She’s quite feisty for a Disney princess.”
Those small changes complemented the shift to a more intimate, character-driven musical that no longer centered around the imposing castle set from the Broadway stage.
“Here we have a bunch of flies and backdrops, and it lends itself to the imagination,” says Agostinis. This was in keeping with the director’s and designers’ intent “to push the acting and the characters and the relationships forward, to bring the spectacular aspects out when it’s absolutely necessary. People who go see the show are going to get a lot more out of the work that is going on onstage between all of the characters. And they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the numbers — ‘Be Our Guest,’ ‘Gaston’ — and the end with all the Disney magic.”
“It’s got more energy, I think,” adds Behny. “The waltz, of course, is just breathtaking. You can hear a pin drop in the audience every night during that scene. It’s a moment when we have thousands of people just silent, watching this love story unfold on stage.”
The two of them now find themselves leading lives that they hadn’t imagined a year ago. Changing cities every few days, occupying the limelight in packed performance centers, playing major roles that beguiled them as children — and in Behny’s case, competing with A-list stars in an audition for the forthcoming film version of Les Miserables.
Happily ever after? Not quite, not yet. But as fairy tales go, it’s a great start.
Beauty and the Beast • Jan. 26 to 29 • Thurs 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm • INB Performing Arts Center • $32.50 - $72.50 • bestofbroadwayspokane.com • (800) 325-SEAT