The curtain opens on the Arts In Motion spring production of “Beauty and the Beast, Jr.” tonight in the Pasco Middle School auditorium in Dade City.
The crew of students has been rehearsing for several months, preparing to bring life to Disney’s story of a young girl, a cursed prince and the love that releases him — and his castle staff that has been reduced to household utensils and furniture — from the curse.
Christian Peña plays the part of the Beast, a prince cursed for his selfishness until he learns to love and someone loves him.
Peña, 15, attends Jesuit High School in Tampa. This is his first play with AIM, but he has been in plays with Masque of Temple Terrace since he was 10.
“Funny story,” he said, “the first play I was in, in Masque, was ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”
He played a knife in that performance.
Peña has performed in about two plays a year since and has grown to enjoy acting.
“I like that you get to be someone that you’re not,” he said. “You just put everything else in the world away and be someone else for a little bit.”
This is not Peña’s first lead role; he played Tevye in “Fiddler On the Roof” last year with Masque. He said he’s had lots of fun playing Tevye and the Beast, but Tevye is the coolest.
“I like Tevye because it’s more of a historical thing and it’s so much tradition — not to be corny,” he said. “It’s part of history.”
Peña said his role as the Beast is challenging because he is so different from the character.
“The challenge for this role for me was getting angry because I’m not an angry person,” he said. “It was a big problem for me. It just took awhile. I was trying to channel the inner beast, I guess.”
On the other hand, he identifies with the tender side of the Beast brought out by Belle.
In the future, Peña would like to pursue acting as a career.
“It’s something I would love to do,” he said. “I don’t know how successful I would be at that, but if I could, that would be something I would definitely enjoy doing.”
Belle is the leading lady of the production, a bookish girl with an eccentric inventor father who longs for a more exciting life than a small town can offer. Between the Beast and Gaston, she gets plenty of excitement.
There are two actresses cast as Belle for this production. One is Lindsay Wright, the other is Melanie Kender.
Kender, 16, is a sophomore at Pasco High School. Her first AIM show was the spring show in 2009, in which she played the part of Bagheera the Panther in “The Jungle Book.”
“I’ve had secondary lead roles,” she said. “But this is definitely the biggest.”
When she compares herself to Belle, Kender sees a mix of similarities and differences.
“She likes to read, I like to read,” she said. “She’s very wise and quick and she knows what she’s doing, I’m such a klutz. She’s got a thin figure and I’ve got some curves.”
Kender says she has learned from her character.
“She’s very sweet and she’s very courageous when it comes to the Beast and the castle, and I feel like I wish I could be as courageous as her sometimes, but sometimes I’m not,” Kender said. “She’s definitely opened my eyes to a lot of new things. Like I look for better things in people now like she does.”
While she enjoys acting and hopes to continue, she does not believe she wants to do it as a career.
“I’m not sure what I want to do yet, but I definitely want theater to be a part of my future,” Kender said.
Wright, 16, the “other” Belle, is a Blake High School student. Her first play was in the same cast with Peña in Masque’s 2008 production of “Beauty and the Beast.” She was also Golda to Peña’s Tevye in “Fiddler On the Roof” last year.
She is a creative writing major in the arts program at Blake. She’s working on a novel and writes poems.
One poem won a scholastic arts and writing award, which took her to New York and Carnegie Hall.
“I’m actually in Blake High School for creative writing, but I love acting and I wanted to do both majors, but it’s not really possible at Blake, so I do community theater and it’s a really great environment,” Wright said. “I do want to pursue (acting) some way at some point in my life.”
Wright says she has a lot in common with Belle.
“I love books. I love a lot of the stuff she loves, like singing and reading, and I guess sometimes I’ve been the odd one out in a lot of situations before I found out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go,” Wright said.
Knowing what it feels like to not fit in makes her feel she would eventually be willing to relate to the Beast the way Belle does in the production.