“Change of pace” is probably the understatement of the year when comparing two theater productions.
As director Brooke Flood savored the nightly standing ovations for sold-out “Beauty and the Beast” performances this summer, she had a strong feeling.
“We have all this momentum, what will we do next?” the Long Beach resident asked herself. “I knew if we waited, we would lose it.”
The answer for the Peninsula Association of Performing Artists is an eight-character straight play, “Enchanted April,” which opens Friday, Oct. 5, and runs two weekends only.
Seven cast members from the musical are back (including the Beast and two women who shared the title role of Belle).
“I felt very torn because we had 29 cast members and so many people who wanted to keep going,” said Flood. “It is very interesting to see them do such different characters.”
Flood had worked backstage on a production of “Enchanted April” at George Fox College in Oregon some years ago and still had the script. Having few characters and requiring uncomplicated sets prompted its selection.
Writer Matthew Barber’s play is based on a book by Elizabeth von Arnim, which was also the subject of a 1992 movie. It tells the story of two women who escape the gloomy London weather in 1922 to vacation in sunny Italy. A 2003 Broadway production featured Molly Ringwald.
Kaylee Murray and Lindsay McGrath feature as Lotty and Rose, each in an unhappy marriage and burdened by painful memories. To share the cost of renting a villa, the characters recruit two strangers, a troubled young socialite, played by Sarah Schott, and an elderly widow whose Victorian morals conflict with the changing times.
Barriers among this conflicting quartet break down under the healing sun and husbands, played by Joel Grote and Matthew Warner, arrive in a new light. An artist (portrayed by retired Beast Jonathan Cole) and a maid, played by Emma Zimmerman, add to the action.
Flood said the show is upbeat, despite its gloomy beginning in perpetually rainy England. “This show leaves you with a smile. It’s very witty, and everybody can relate to the characters.”
All four women are burdened by sadness from their pasts — until they learn to let go. Together they cry, laugh and become liberated with hope.
“This show promises to delight everyone,” said Flood. “It is all about new beginnings — before we can heal, we must shatter and face our demons. Only when broken can we heal and grow into beautiful people.”
Murray’s character, Lotty, says, “For every ‘before’ that is lost, an ‘after’ is found.”
For McGrath, who shared the lead “Beauty” role with Schott, it is her second production. She speaks about her character’s motivation with the eloquence of a veteran actor.
“I play Rose, who is very sad and troubled. She does not know what she is supposed to be,” said McGrath. “She is disillusioned. Things have happened that damaged her soul. Going to Italy, she blossoms again. The things that have happened matter, but it’s time to move on.”
Costume designer Angela Grote has clad Schott in a risqué “flapper” era dress that sparkles in stunning contrast to every other woman onstage. The socialite that Schott portrays anguishes over the loss of her young husband in the carnage of World War I, only regaining her own sparkle when she shares her private grief with an unlikely confidante.
The actress has embraced Flood’s technique of asking actors to ponder motivation. “If you give your character a ‘back story,’ it helps you ‘become’ your character,” Schott said. “I like to completely immerse myself in a character and that’s the easiest way to do it.”
Long Beach Peninsula audiences who have heard Jane Schussman with Bayside Singers, or seen her in recent PAPA musicals, will observe another dimension of the 77-year-old performer.
“Mrs. Graves, my character, is very overbearing and very proper. But she is not that way inside,” said Schussman. After rehearsing a scene in which her face appeared as solemn as her high-collared, colorless dress, she grinned. “I love working with everyone — it’s fun!”
Flood, the director, hopes audiences will be entertained and uplifted, while seeing her actors stretch themselves in challenging, non-singing roles.
“This is the perfect date-night show — if every man brought his date to this, it would be great. And it’s also the perfect girls’-night-out show.”