With the Broadway successes of Avenue Q, War Horse and King Kong, puppetry is having an extended moment.
For an art form dating back to 3000 B.C., it’s now getting its due as puppets take center stage at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s current production of Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale of a young maiden who falls in love with a prince-turned-beast who can be freed only by her love.
“Reimaging and re-envisioning the show is a way to have people come back to a story they love, but may have seen before,” says Maltz’s CEO and producing artistic director, Andrew Kato, whose mother was a puppeteer.
The show, which opened Tuesday, runs through Dec. 16.
The production, adapted from Walt Disney Pictures’ 1991 Academy Award-winning animated musical film, is directed by acclaimed puppeteer John Tartaglia, who began his career as a puppeteer for Sesame Street at age 16 and earned a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut in the dual roles of Princeton and Rod in Avenue Q.
All of the musical’s inanimate objects and magical moments will be portrayed by one-of-a-kind puppets brought to life by Eric Wright, 37, and his company, Puppet Kitchen International, which also created the puppets for the Maltz’s productions of The King and I in 2014 and the following year for The Wiz.
“Puppetry represents the magic in the show,” says Wright, who co-founded his company in 2008. “All the enchanted characters in the story are represented by puppets.”
“Reality is elevated by the use of these puppets,” he adds, giving credit to Julie Taymor and her production of The Lion King, which he says opened people’s eyes to appreciating puppetry as an art form.
“‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a story that lives in many people’s minds,” he says. “Our challenge is to tell the story in a different way and highlight the special kind of magic that only puppets can impart.”
Tartaglia, who currently stars as Kip on Word Party, an animated series on Netflix created by the Jim Henson company, and Hank in Julie’s Greenroom (starring Julie Andrews) ― and who played Lumière on Broadway ― says, “‘Beauty and the Beast is my favorite Disney animated feature of all time. Having the chance to direct this reimagined version is a dream come true.”
The production features 19 cast members, an 11-piece orchestra and approximately 50 puppets. It stars Danielle Bowen as Belle and Zach Nadolski as the Beast, along with South Florida performers Anna McNeely as Madame De La Grande Bouche, and multiple Carbonell Award winner Laura Turnbull as Mrs. Potts.
The show is choreographed by Shannon Lewis, who recently choreographed the new musical The Secret Silk, by Stephen Schwartz and Tartaglia, and the film Stuck, starring Amy Madigan, Giancarlo Esposito, and Ashanti.
“One of the highlights for me was working with the super-skilled and talented John Tartaglia and choreographer Shannon Lewis,” Wright said. “They’ve communicated something wonderful to the audience.”
Kato says he knew Tartaglia was the right man for the job.
“John has taken the show in an exciting and transformational direction,” says Kato, who believes he is the first regional theater to incorporate puppets with this musical.
“Puppetry is a great way to tell a story,” Kato says. “With puppets as part of the storytelling process, audiences can lean in and become more involved. It’s a joyous experience for both kids and adults and lets them re-activate their imagination.”
Beauty and the Beast runs through Dec. 16 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Tickets start at $60. For tickets and showtimes, call (561) 575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org. For information on bringing your group to the theater, contact community relationships ambassador Cheryl McDermott at (561) 972-6117.