Heidi Pennertz remembers when Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” arrived in movie theaters.
“I was like 10 years old when the animated movie came out,” Pennertz said. “So I was kind of prime age at that point. And as a little girl who couldn’t keep her own nose out of a book, I will say I definitely identified with Belle when I was younger.”
For all she loved about that movie, however, Pennertz admits that she probably would not have chosen the stage adaptation of that fairy tale for her directorial debut.
“This wasn’t on my initial list,” Pennertz said, “but that’s because of how big of a show this is. It’s not necessarily what you think about doing for your first time. But I love the show.”
And after about six weeks of rehearsals for the Litchfield Community Theatre production, Pennertz is feeling even better about it. Just in time, as the show runs Thursday through Sunday this week at Bernie Aaker Auditorium.
“Absolutely!” she answered when asked if she was enjoying it. “I mean, yeah, it’s like 46 people in the cast, and more in the crew … I won’t say everyone always gets along, but still at the same time, it’s an amazing group of people that is fun to work with. They are really working hard. The ability to just ask somebody to do something and know they’re going to do it (is) really, really nice.”
Pennertz has been around theater for quite some time, though most of her experience came through college plays, and smaller productions – like staging plays at her church or for her parents’ July 4 get-togethers.
She made a bigger step two years ago when she co-directed “Oliver!” with Mary Hansen for Litchfield Community Theatre.
“I freely admit to people, this summer has been like, ‘OK, I know all this, but now I’m actually doing all of it,’” Pennertz said with a chuckle before an evening rehearsal last week. “Not that it’s been anything big, but there are things if I were to go back and redo … I’m sure I’d make changes.”
She says she’s been fortunate to have a supportive group around her during rehearsals. Erin Dollerschell, a 2017 Litchfield High School graduate, and somewhat of a theater regular has helped immeasurably, Pennertz said. As has Carissa Defries, who showed up early on and asked if she could volunteer as an assistant director, so that she could learn tricks of the theater trade.
When her stage manager had to step away due to health reasons late in rehearsals, Pennertz turned to Defries and Dollerschell.
“It was like, now they’re running everything backstage,” Pennertz said. “It wasn’t perfect, but watching how hard they work, it was good. Carissa, like me, has done a lot in college, backstage. So, now it’s just doing a lot of that where she doesn’t have a professor looking over her shoulder. And I don’t even want to think about how many shows Erin has been involved in.”
While some have taken on new leadership roles backstage, the cast of “Beauty and the Beast” is composed primarily of stage veterans, including a contingent of actors from The Barn Theatre in Willmar.
The group of Willmar residents includes Michael Cola, who plays Beast, while Ashleigh Cola is Belle. Chris Ness is Lefou, and Ben Watson plays Cogsworth. Litchfield native Aubrey Ross plays Babette, and Elizabeth Watson is in the ensemble but also doubling as production manager.
Even with the wealth of acting talent, however, Pennertz was concerned about the performance timeline until recently.
“Last week if you’d asked me, another week of rehearsals would have been good,” Pennertz said last week. “When you’ve been able to run parts of shows, but haven’t been able to put it together as a whole show, you wonder about the links. But seeing actors in rehearsals this week, we’re getting it. I am 100 percent sure that by Monday, it will be clicking.”