Joe Hager was 10 years old when he saw the musical “Beauty and the Beast” in Los Angeles. The year was 1994, and Hager was searching for something that would help give him direction in life.
“After I saw the production, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to play the role of Gaston someday,’ ” said Hager.
That day is now.
Hager, who grew up in Lawrence, Kan., plays Gaston in the Broadway national touring production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Portland Ovations brings it to town for three performances at Merrill Auditorium, beginning Friday night.
The show is part of Portland Ovations’ “Broadway and Beyond” series, which also includes “The Midtown Men” on Feb. 14, “Rock of Ages” on March 30 and “Hair” on April 19.
Hager joined the cast in November, and will play the role another 150 or so times before the current tour winds down in June. A trained opera singer, he makes his musical theater debut in this production.
“I got lucky,” he said by phone from the road. “I auditioned once for my dream role, and I got it. Things worked out just the way they are supposed to.”
The touring version of “Beauty and the Beast” features the 1991 animated film’s Academy Award-winning score, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman. There are also additional songs by Menken and Tim Rice. The book was written by Linda Woolverton.
Based on a classic fairytale, the play tells the story of Belle, a young woman in a provincial town, and the Beast, a young prince trapped in a spell placed by an enchantress. If the Beast can learn to love, the curse will be lifted. Gaston is the egotistical rival of Beast.
Much of the original creative team that originated “Beauty and the Beast” for Broadway have a hand in the touring production, including director Rob Roth, choreographer Matt West and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, who won a Tony Award for her work on the Broadway version of the show.
For Hager, musical performance provided much-needed direction and motivation at a young age. He was a shy kid growing up, and found himself in awkward situations at school. “I was picked on a little bit as a kid,” he said.
His parents enrolled him in a performing arts camp, and Hager thrived. He met like-minded children and found a welcoming community that didn’t judge him.
Armed with confidence, he grew out of his shyness and learned to assert himself. And after he saw “Beauty and the Beast,” he knew what he wanted to do.
“I was just taken with the whole show overall. It had a strong effect on me — the music, the costumes, the truthful message of the show,” he said.
For the actor and singer, the tour has been full of meaningful moments already. Just getting out on the road and making his national touring debut is something for which he is grateful. Spending Christmas in Chicago with the 60 members of the cast and crew was a new experience too.
But the best thing so far has been bringing “Beauty and Beast” home to Kansas. Family and friends turned out for the show, including his 92-year-old grandmother, who was seated in the second row.
“That was absolutely amazing,” Hager said. “Some of the people who helped teach me when I was growing up were present at the show, and I can’t begin to tell you just how good that felt.”
Hager will complete the circle later this spring when the tour goes to L.A. and plays in the same theater where he saw it almost 20 years ago.
“I know that will be really meaningful to me,” he said. “I’m sure it will feel really good to be on stage in the theater where I realized what I wanted to do.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: