For Hannah Jewel Kohn, who is in her second year touring with the Beauty and the Beast company, the Philadelphia performances will be a chance to see the musical enchant a new audience — as she has for the past many, many performances the cast has done so far.
It’s a tale as old as time — and for some, a dream come true.
The team behind the national touring production of Beauty and the Beast, the musical inspired by the 1991 Disney animated classic composed by Jewish songwriting duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, will invite Philadelphia to be their guest during its run at the Academy of Music from Feb. 16 to Feb. 21.
For Hannah Jewel Kohn, who is in her second year touring with the company, the Philadelphia performances will be a chance to see the musical enchant a new audience — as she has for the past many, many performances the cast has done so far.
“Every time a person leaves this theater, they have been changed,” enthused the 20-year-old native of Walled Lake, Mich.
Kohn, who joined the ensemble of the touring cast of the musical last year after performing at Busch Gardens in Virginia, grew up in a musical environment, with a great-grandmother who was a vaudevillian and a musical-happy family.
She recalled seeing a live performance of Mary Poppins when she was younger and telling her mom, “I want to be up there so bad. This is exactly what my heart is telling me to go do.”
Beast is her dream show, she said.
“This is a show I want to be a part of because of the timeless story and the beautiful message it tells,” said Kohn, who wears many hats in the ensemble, including a villager and enchanted objects, in addition to being the understudy for flirtatious feather duster, Babette. “The story is about seeing past someone’s exterior and looking directly into their heart. It’s a timeless story everyone can relate to in some way.”
It’s a message that is important for the Jewish community — as well as many others, she said. It’s not the only Jewish value she can find in the musical, either.
She added she’s always related to the message of Judaism of giving back.
“When God gives you a gift,” she said, “it’s important to use it and help people.”
She’s used her gift of performing to others since she can remember. “Ever since I was a little kid, I always — when I had days off — I would go and volunteer and sing for” residents of local nursing homes, she said.
“I just feel like I am the type of person that loves to encourage and inspire and motivate,” and performing is a great way to do that, she added.
And she’s had plenty of chances to spread the message.
During last year’s tour, she did more than 320 performances. This year, she said, the cast will be doing a little more than that — they have an 11-month contract which mandates eight performances a week, just like a Broadway show.
That sounds busy, but it comes with its perks. Kohn loves being able to explore new cities during their tour and visit museums.
The company also got a bonus treat with this tour — the chance to work with the creative team from the original Broadway production, which ran on Broadway from 1994 to 2007, including the director, choreographer and costume designer.
She’s been able to hear how they put the show together and the messages behind each song.
“They told us how each song was created and the messages behind the movie and the storyline and the characters,” she said.
She learned that many of the characters’ behaviors are based on real-life counterparts. When figuring out how Gaston — the hyper-masculine egotistical villain — should be posing, for instance, his stature was based on someone’s ex-boyfriend.
“It’s not just a show and a musical,” Kohn said. “It’s real life and working with the original Broadway creative team — I am so grateful and fortunate. I’m learning so much and it’s truly remarkable.”
Playing so many roles in the ensemble — which she did during last year’s performances as well — gives her the opportunity to bring to life many characters during the different songs.
But the one song in particular that stands out to her is the showstopper, “Be Our Guest.”
Though audiences who have grown up with the movie know the classic tune by heart and see it coming, there is always so much enthusiasm for the song, Kohn said.
“It’s so exciting — people are clapping and they’re jumping off their seats,” she said, laughing. “You can see the smiles from miles away.”
If you think that having the audience already know the story and what’s going to happen would hinder the performance, you would probably be wrong.
The response from each audience is unique, and Kohn sees it every time she and the other performers leave the backstage doors and talk to those who saw the show.
“Not always do people show this much enthusiasm in a show,” she said, “but this show has been around and people have seen the movie, grown up watching Beauty and the Beast and have an idea of what it’s going to feel like when they see the musical.”
Seeing the reaction from the audience and knowing the message will resonate with them is one of Kohn’s favorite aspects about being a part of the musical.
“This show is so important in the world today with everything going on and politics and everything,” Kohn said. “We need to bring more kindness and love to the world and a feeling of hope — that’s what you’ll get after this show.”
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