Getting to know Gaston

Nathaniel Hackmann (Gaston) and Ensemble in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"

Belle isn’t particularly eager to get to know Gaston when they meet in the fictional French village of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” movie — which predates the Disney musical by many years.

Gaston is rather garish with a gargantuous ego — though the gaggles of girls who follow and fawn over him don’t seem to mind. But Belle, the “Beauty” to the story’s “Beast,” finds him ever so borish.

The actor who currently plays Gaston in the touring production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” seems an altogether different sort of fellow. We spoke by phone recently when the tour stopped in Hawaii.

I caught up with Nathaniel Hackmann as he was enjoying the view from atop Diamond Head in Honolulu, where my mom and I lived for a time when I was in my teens.

Anyone who’ll take a call atop Diamond Head is beyond gracious in my book. Talking with the press or taking in paradise? It’s not a tough choice.

Turns out Hackmann hails from Scottsdale and “grew up on the Mesa/Chandler border.” He attended Dobson High School before studying vocal performance and vocal education at Northern Arizona University.

When his local voice teacher moved to Michigan, Hackmann transfered to Central Michigan University, earning his masters degree in 2006.

Still, he’s got high praise for performing arts programs at Arizona’s three state universities — suggesting that students going through that lovely college admissions process look at the University of Arizona musical theatre program, the Northern Arizona University theatre education program and the performing arts programs at Arizona State University.

Gaston would gladly offer college advice without ever being asked for it, despite his apparent lack of literary luster. Hackmann, on the other hand, strikes me as a humble fellow who is happy to share with others in a giving, rather than self-glorifying, way.

So I asked him about the college audition process for aspiring performing arts majors. “The first ten seconds are crucial,” says Hackmann. “You have to find that something that will stick in their minds.” It never hurts when that something is confidence or a “good attitude.”

“Sing what you sing best,” recommends Hackmann. Don’t choose audition pieces based on “preconceived notions.”

I asked Hackmann about how he landed the role of Gaston. “I was in New York,” recalls Hackmann, “doing lots of auditions.” I like the “lots” part. Take note young job seekers — one or two applications or auditions here or there is unlikely to do the trick.

“The audition was a pretty grueling process,” admits Hackmann. But happily, he was picked in the “first round” — meaning he only went through five or so call backs compared to the 35 experienced by other contenders.

Competition for the role of Belle was expecially fierce — with about 3,000 women auditioning for the part — which makes me especially eager to see this performance. (There were about 5,ooo auditioners in all.)

Hackmann says this musical shares a common thread with all Disney productions: It has something for everyone. There’s romance and action — a combo that makes musicals appealing to boys and girls young and old.

“It has a really spectacular fight scene,” says Hackmann, adding that this is always a favorite with younger boys in the audience. Those who’ve studied or practiced stage combat will appreciate it on a whole other level.

Hackmann notes that the production features a fresh young cast plus several new staging elements he describes as “ethereal.” He says audience members “from nine months to 99 years old” have enjoyed the musical during this tour.

The preschool-age girls who dress like Belle or wear other princess costumes only add to the magic. Though I’m too old for dress up, I’ll be in the audience on opening night — and share a review of the show with you next week.

But don’t delay in getting your tickets. Disney musicals are beloved by many and I’d hate to see any young princesses at the show who are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

–Lynn

Nathaniel Hackmann

Note: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” runs Oct 19-24 at ASU Gammage. It’s one of several musicals this season which have special appeal for children and families. Click here to learn about special offers – including a Disney princess costume event this Friday (where some will receive a free ticket to the show) and a “Beauty and the Beasts” event at the Phoenix Zoo this Saturday.

Coming up: Meet more stage moms, Fright night at the theater, Weekend arts roundup

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