While stacking “Beauty and the Beast” dolls, board games and Christmas ornaments on shelves at the Disneyland Emporium back in 1991, Christopher Spencer had no idea what his future held.
Today, he is touring the country as Maurice, Belle’s inventor father, in the national tour of “Beauty and the Beast” — now one of the longest-running musicals in history. It is set to arrive Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
“We’ve played some incredible venues, but OCPAC is the one I’ve been waiting for,” Spencer said. “Having grown up in Santa Ana, I think I was just out of high school when they built OCPAC. It just means a lot to me to be performing at that location. I want the people whom I care about so much to be proud of me, proud of my work and proud of my production.”
Spencer said he loves meet-and-greets with audiences at the stage door after shows, and encouraged fans of the musical to stop by and say hello after the show.
A former Costa Mesa resident, Spencer attended Cal State Long Beach; he resides in the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach. While in college, Spencer worked at Disneyland — but didn’t start acting until he was out of school.
“Growing up in Orange County, you’re kind of growing up in the shadow of the Matterhorn,” Spencer said. “At that time, I hadn’t even thought about [acting] as a hobby,” Spencer said. “I look back on those days and think, ‘Wow, I never would have thought then that I would be touring the country performing in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ — but maybe there was something that kind of stuck with me from those days.”
The touring production of “Beauty and the Beast” was put together using the original Broadway creative team, Spencer said.
“Talk about an experience,” he said. “It’s like having a time capsule open up for you, and they let us play around with things. There was no ‘This is how we did it before.’ They were given the chance to re-imagine the material.”
Spencer said the musical version of the animated film closely follows the film’s storyline, but has added songs and increased character development for characters like Maurice.
“I think the relationship between him and Belle is better developed,” Spencer said. “They’re not just parent/child but very good friends, and they look out for each other. You really get a little bit about their history, with her mother no longer present. Maurice essentially raised Belle on his own for a good period of time. Their bond is very strong.”
Like the film, the musical offers something for all ages, Spencer said.
“Belle is such a wonderful role model for younger girls. There are action scenes for younger boys and romance for couples. The scenes onstage might be a little bit darker than in the film version. The action is a little bit more adventurous, and the stakes are a little higher onstage. We have a wonderful cast who really just dives right into so much of the material. There’s romance, spectacular production numbers and also softer, sweeter moments; it’s very moving, and there’s so much to take away from the show — so many different emotions, and so many different levels of excitement.”
For Spencer, the role is a dream come true; the odds were stacked against him when he first heard about the opportunity.
“I was doing a show last summer up in the Solvang area, and I saw that they were having auditions for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in L.A., but they were only going to be there one day,” Spencer said.
He sent in his picture and resume, and a casting staff member “saw something” in him; although his commitments made him unable to attend the Los Angeles audition, Spencer soon found himself booking a trip to New York to audition during one of their callbacks there.
“I went again and again; then they offered me the role,” he said. “It happened very quickly, back in September of last year. I was ecstatic. I had auditioned for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a few times before for local productions, so to be on the national tour with Disney’s stamp of approval, and for such a good company — talk about a heady experience for me. I was just floating.
“It was a lot to process; my involvement happened so quickly. I’m sure many actors out there do this frequently — fly out for an audition — but it’s not something I had done before. To fly to New York for a weekend to audition for something, that’s an investment. I feel that it really shows that this is something serious. This is a serious career move, and the stakes are much higher now. During that weekend, I tried not to think about how life-changing it could be; I tried to just keep myself calm.”
The opportunity also has afforded Spencer his first chance to tour the country. Previously he had only gone on short jaunts, either growing up with his family or performing last year in “A Christmas Carol” on the East Coast. He said he’s been amazed by the Disney touring experience.
“I wake up every day thinking I’m an incredibly fortunate person to be working in a career that I love, in this economy, and to be working for a company that’s really looking out for me,” he said. “We went to Hawaii for three weeks. We performed for two of them, and then had a free week. We spent two weeks in San Francisco, and two weeks in Chicago. It’s an incredible, incredible experience to see places that I haven’t seen before — and places I might not ever have seen in the future, like the Finger Lakes of New York state. This tour has opened my eyes to places where I might have resisted going to, so I’m incredibly thankful for that — and they treat us so well on the tour. This experience has given me a passport to my country, and I’m grateful for it.”
Spencer said he sometimes thinks back to a small production of “Beauty and the Beast” that opened at Disneyland the year after the film’s release, and saw more than 4,000 performances.
“I remember how hugely popular it was,” he said. “To think that this whole musical kind of came from that 25- to 30-minute production in the Park. It feels like, even though I wasn’t directly involved, it was part of my history.”
If You Go
What: “Beauty and the Beast”
When: Nov. 16 to 21
Where: Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: $20 and up