BWW Interview: Be My Guest As Choreographer Cheryl Baxter Opines On Choreographing The Classic Disney Musical Beauty & The Beast at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
Disney's Classic Film and subsequent Broadway Musical are not easy to recreate and to do justice to as well, both to the animated film version and the original stage production. Five Star Theatricals has opened this past weekend at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza/Kavli Theatre with a most lavish, charming and authentic version!
I had the opportunity to speak with the Choreographer, Cheryl Baxter, of this delightful musical, and learned what it takes to be able to tackle this type of exciting but daunting project. I was not at all surprised to learn that it takes a careers'-worth of experience and dedication to be at this level.
The Entertaining-as-well Artistic Director Patrick Cassidy, newly in charge and with a pedigree incomparable, has assembled an incredible stable of Artists. At the helm is the Director, Yvette Lawrence, who, herself has a venerable history with this show, and coupled with the other artistic collaborators, he chose a winning team to get this Production shiny and sparkly. Susan Egan stars as Belle, reprising her role from the original Broadway production, 24 years later, and sounding and looking like the perfect Belle you could only dream of.
Part of that team is Cheryl Baxter, a long-time dancer, singer, actress that transitioned into directing, choreographing and producing after extensive training, performing, and being the formidable entertainer that she has become, as well as a valuable contributor. I have the utmost respect for her ability and fortitude that will transcend into something bigger and brighter than ever before.
All the elements have come together beautifully to make this production blessed with the Best.
I think there is a reason certain collaborations occur, and that is part of the wonder of Artistry, in general, when forces beyond imagination collide and collude to create something extraordinary.
I think a part of me was put in the place at this time in my life, to do what I am now doing. Given the opportunity to make my voice heard. I am here to help propel the artistry of Dance to a new plateau. As I look back on an extremely fulfilling career, I want to promote and encourage what the avenues lead to moving forward...
Back to Cheryl B., she is a shining example of working your way up, from infancy through her current status, somewhere between perfect and all-inclusive... Cheryl was born into a family where her Mom, who was present when I interviewed Cheryl (how cool is that; for your Mom to share in your long-awaited accomplishments!) was a dance teacher and that's the path Cheryl followed, willingly and whole-heartedly. It must have been destiny, because the years and jobs that went by, ultimately prepared her for what she's accomplishing today, all the while garnishing well-deserved and meaningful accolades along the way. I personally know this type of lifes' path, although it's not so much about the praise; it's about the journey and it's personal worth.
Cheryl began dancing as a toddler of 2½ in her mother's studio in Wisconsin, the daughter of a still-teaching mother, Betty Baxter, at age 88 I might add, and who is as effervescent and vital as ever. Cheryl proves that talent is often passed on from generation to generation. When I spoke with Betty, I learned that doctors commented on her current medical tests that she had the brain capacity of a 20-year old. Really proves the theory about elder years and productivity! Hallelujah!
Cheryl began traveling to NYC as a teen to partake of the shows she longed to see, and train with the incredible teachers there at that time. She performed in musicals whenever possible while growing up. From an early age, she paid attention and soaked in information. When you are on a mission, you are relentless in your pursuit. I applaud this kind of inspired direction.
After absorbing the magic that is Broadway, she ventured West, and began her journey to where she is now. In the early '80s, her career in Los Angeles quickly blossomed.
She performed in four different musicals at The Shubert Theatre, back to back ~ Sophisticated Ladies (also in the televised broadcast on Broadway), Cats, 42nd Street, a tap-dancer's dream, and Evita. It wasn't long before she also added television, commercials and film experience to her resume'. In some of the work she not only performed in, but became an assistant choreographer to choreographers such as Walter Painter at Goodspeed Opera House, Kenny Ortega and Gene Kelly on One From the Heart, and several others. Performancewise, she has over 20 films to her credit, among them, Xanadu, Tap, Grease 2, Pennies From Heaven and has danced alongside such legends as Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr., The Nicholas Brothers (did I mention she is an incredible tap dancer?) and Donald O'Connor. Her television credits include, Glee, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Academy and Golden Globe Awards Shows, Mike and Molly, etc.
All of this amazing experience led to her Choreographing and Directing theater productions around the world, from choreographing the movie premiere special events for Disney and Buena Vista Entertainment, (including the El Capitan pre-show when the film Beauty and the Beast first premiered), to Doo-Wop Groups and other shows at Universal Studios in Hollywood, Japan and Singapore; Sophisticated Ladies, Sesame Street Live, Hello Kitty, and many more.
She met her husband, George Ratliff, while both were performing in "Sophisticated Ladies," and they have worked together on and off for years on different projects. He is her "biggest fan," along with son, Ellington, who is aptly named, since he came about because of their meeting while doing Duke Ellington's Musical Tribute.
Drawing on her strengths as a triple threat, she applied her entire creative self to prepare for the task ahead, although in reality it was a steady progression since birth. Looking back on what Cheryl has already accomplished, it has led to her contribution in making this show so special. There are several other ingredients that seemed to point to destiny taking a hand in this ~ her work ethic is strong. She uses several months for pre-production, working out choreography by herself and workshopping with a few assistants and lead dancers. She is fully prepared by the time auditions take place. There are always many changes and adjustments to be made in the final days, once you begin to deal with sets, costumes and run-thrus, so you must remain flexible and be able to adapt anything at a moments' notice.
We discussed the era(s) we were both working dancers in, and the fact that during that time most of the work in television and film was theatre-dance oriented, as in Variety shows, Specials such as Musical Comedy Tonight, on PBS, lots of huge Production numbers on Awards Shows and big-budget movies where tap, jazz and musical comedy abounded. This gave Cheryl a sound basis from which to draw from. She also has choreographed shows before, eight of them, for Five-Star Theatricals (formerly Cabrillo Theatre), beginning with "Oliver," where her by then 12-year-old son, Ellington, got to play a part, and began his own stellar career. (He is now a member of the internationally adored musical group "R-5!"). Following that were "Anything Goes," "Peter Pan," "Once Upon a Mattress," "Evita," "Mary Poppins," and Cabrillo's "Christmas Spectacular," which she both Directed and Choreographed, that starred Patrick Cassidy and his mom, Shirley Jones.
Tackling this specific show, she had a lot to be aware of. In choreographing for Actors who are playing such whimsical characters, i.e. Luminiere, a candlestick, Chip, a broken teacup, his mom Mrs. Potts, a teacup and gymnastic Salt and Pepper shakers, the choreography has to be modified somewhat, and all movement must jibe with whom or what they are portraying.
She was very pleased with this entire cast, who all ended up dancing more than they thought they would, with infectious energy, as Cheryl added some wonderfully exciting and rhythmic sections. She is "lyrically" and "story" driven, which helps her develop each character individually, borrowing from each person's strengths and fortes. She also needed to decide how to put her own unique mark on the production, yet stay within the feel and look of the original. Drawing on her diverse background, she added her own touches where she felt the music warranted it, incorporating her own strengths as a performer and her overall viewpoint to what was needing to be conveyed, through body movement. If the movement embodies the music and the story, you're guaranteed a great outcome.
As well, Cheryl had worked before with Susan Egan, in 1997, choreographing her in a TV Special, "Hercules." Susan was the voice of Meg in the Disney film "Hercules." Working together again all these years later was a welcome adventure for both. Susan was totally on board with Cheryl giving her new choreography and more dancing this time around, and it worked splendidly. Between them both having also worked with Director Yvette Lawrence previously, it was a female dream team in the key positions.
Next up for Cheryl is choreographing a tour of Evita, which will be a piece of cake for her, and yet another feather in her cap. She is also one of the producers of the upcoming World Choreography Awards, which honors Choreographers in all forms of media.
It was a pleasure to chat with both Cheryl and her mom about her latest endeavor and how it all came together. They are also the friendliest, nicest, upbeat ladies you'd ever want to meet!
Beauty and the Beast is truly family entertainment and will have you singing the songs and feeling lighthearted and happy as you leave the theatre. With the most glorious, melodic, and memorable lyrics and score, by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, this musical will forever stand the test of time.
Beauty and The Beast runs through this coming weekend, with performances Wednesday, July 25th, and Friday, July 27th thru Sunday, July 29th ~ you really don't want to miss it!!!!!!!!
Photos courtesy of Mar ~ and Ed Krieger