Belle is one of the most coveted roles in show biz.
Emma Watson went from Harry Potter franchisee to full Hollywood superstar with her recent turn as the Beauty & The Beast lead character. When Emma Stone was interviewed at the Oscar Awards following Stone's win for the film La La Land, Stone said of Watson (who was linked first to the La La Land role) "She's the coolest. She's Belle," said an admiring Stone.
Other stars of stage and screen who have held versions of Belle in their hands include Josette Day, Rebecca De Mornay, Vanessa Hudgens, Susan Sarandon, Amy Irving, Susan Egan, Paige O'Hara, and Linda Hamilton.
Prince George now has its own Belle for the summer of 2019 and director Judy Russell feels she's "the coolest" in the local context. Kelsey Jewesson (nee Wheatley) is the musical theatre star inhabiting the pivotal role of the curious, self-educating village maiden who uses logic and reason to think beyond the confines of her medieval social constrictions, then turns to her wit and determination again to survive being imprisoned by a bitter, indignant man-beast at his castle deep in the woods.
"It's like a dream role," said Jewesson, who has had her fair share of plum characters.
"You grow up watching Disney, so you grow up identifying with Disney princesses. For me, it was always Belle. Maybe it was brown hair like mine, I don't know, but she was the one who most held my attention. She always seemed much more contemporary, education and learning were the most important things for her, it was never about needing a prince, so I gravitated to Belle. If I could pick any Disney princess, it would be Belle every time."
Russell picked her because of those same innate values. After rising to the spotlight in local productions of Nunsense, Nunsense 2, Hello Dolly and a star turn in the role of Eponine in Les Miserables, Jewesson made off for bigger stages in musical theatre school first at Camosun College and then the University of Victoria where she excelled in her voice pursuits, winning both the Victoria Medal (for the highest GPA in the Faculty of Fine Arts) and the Governor General's Silver Medal (UVic's top overall undergraduate student).
Like Belle, one of Jewesson's primary characteristics is a devotion to family. That brought her back to Prince George with her husband Chris and their baby daughter Elizabeth, where she was welcomed back into the musical theatre fold with, well, Belles on.
"I hadn't talked to Judy about being cast in any particular roles. I had one thing only on my mind and that was being a mom," she said, and let productions of Legally Blonde and Cabaret slide by without auditioning.
The timing was right, though, when Beauty & The Beast came up. Jewesson is now blended into a mix of singers and dancers and actors who, she knew from seeing the most recent Judy Russell blockbusters as an audience member, were high caliber performers from dungeon to tower.
"Community theatre involves everyone. That's what's so special about it," Jewesson said. "The cast, the crew, the audience, it is all of us, it is all Prince George, and we are doing it for each other and the love of the arts. It is a wholesome and holistic creation. I know the audience is going to get such joy from watching it, because we are getting such joy from preparing it."
To come back into her home community (Jewesson shares her hometown status with Prince George and Smithers, with some family connection to Fort St. James as well) means reconnecting with people she has worked with before, and in many cases were children when she left but have developed into capable, mature performers now.
Her favourite person on set, though, is a constant guiding light in her performance life. Alex Murray is not only Judy Russell's father, he is also one of the city's most inveterate arts activists and seminal teachers of the performing arts. Jewesson said his presence at rehearsals is part honorary but also part necessity. She still leans on his constructive criticisms, even at this stage of her career.
She is also well aware that young eyes are fixed upon her, not only as Belle but also as someone who has been professionally schooled and had professional experience in other centres. As Murray is open and inviting to her, she wants to be open and inviting to all the other cast members, be that among the other leads who can share their insights as peers, or for the children and aspiring performers in the chorus who are just getting started on a path Jewesson and her fellow leads remember all too well.
Everyone in the cast, she said, feels a debt of gratitude to their director and producer, who has given them all the opportunity to shine their talents and hone their crafts. Whether they ever go off and become pros in Vancouver, Toronto, London or New York is not the point for any of them in Beauty & The Beast, although local protgs are in those places doing those things right now. The point, said Jewesson, is to do good work for the benefit of their community.
"Judy is the queen of community theatre, and having worked now with Pacific Opera and some other companies, I can say with total confidence that these shows she does, using only local talent, are absolutely professional grade," Jewesson said. "It wasn't always that way, and you can still see some of the signs of amateur talent in these local productions, but only little traces, and if you spend time watching professional musical theatre in those other places, you'll spot that in those supposedly superior shows as well. No, Judy has reached a point, right here in PG, where the shows could pack up and sell the same tickets in those other cities, too. We just get to see it here, all ours."
Beauty & The Beast runs from July 11 to 27, 15 performances in all.
Get tickets at all Central Interior Tickets platforms.