A BEAUTY WHO'S BELLE OF THE BALL : N.Y. UNDERSTUDY JOINS `B&B' JUST IN TIME FOR ONE-YEAR PARTY.
Understudying the role of Belle in the Broadway production of ``Beauty and the Beast,'' Yvette Lawrence spent three months hanging out back stage, appearing in front of the audience only briefly most nights as a singing and dancing broom.
But her voice, pluck and presence apparently swept producers off their feet, and when the role of Belle opened in Los Angeles recently, Lawrence got the call.
She arrived just in time for some big-time partying among the Shubert Theatre cast: ``Beauty'' celebrates its one-year anniversary tonight with a champagne reception.
And the extravagant $13 million Disney musical, which already has been seen by some 700,000 people, shows no signs of slowing down. This past December, nine months after opening, the show broke the all-time, one-day box-office record in Los Angeles previously held by Andrew Lloyd Webber's ``Phantom of the Opera.''
It also broke the Shubert Theatre's weekly box-office record, grossing $1.27 million during the week that ended on Christmas Eve.
Disney officials estimate that by early September, the show will have reached an audience of 1 million. It recently won four Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, including outstanding production, and three Theatre LA Ovation Awards.
Lawrence has the unenviable task of replacing Susan Egan, who originated Belle on Broadway and moved to the Los Angeles show in April 1995. After three years of the same role, Egan let her contract expire to pursue other interests.
Indeed, Lawrence said she worried about replacing a woman who created such a strong image of the young heroine.
But she decided to make the role her own, a decision which has apparently paid off. On her debut night earlier this month, audiences gave Lawrence a standing ovation.
``You can't do anything anyone else was doing because we're all individuals. (Egan) is wonderful, but I'm very different from her. My singing voice is different.
``They hired me because I'm me. I've never felt any pressure to be her.''
Many in the Shubert's cast were with the show on Broadway and throughout its one-year run here, including Tom Bosley, who plays Belle's father, and Gary Beach, who plays Lumiere.
Lawrence said they have welcomed her warmly to the Shubert, appreciating her ``new energy.''
``At first when I got here, I thought, `Oh my god. They've been used to one person for so long.' But they were so incredible, so accepting.''
Although new to the show, Lawrence is no stranger to theater.
She played Cordelia, a lesbian kosher caterer in the touring production of ``Falsettos,'' and Linda from Liverpool in the Broadway production of ``Blood Brothers,'' which starred Petula Clark and David Cassidy.
Her very first Broadway show was the doomed ``Nick and Nora,'' which closed after one week.
After that disappointment, she turned to television, and appeared for eight months on the soap opera ``One Life to Live'' as police Sgt. Maggie Vega.
``I was the most untough cop,'' she said. ``I dropped my gun. I wore a skirt. My hair was always down. The makeup was perfect.''
The soap experience was comical, she said, sort of like the madcap movie ``Soapdish.''
``I had a good time. I got to seduce a minister my second day on the show. I got suspended from the force for not naming homosexual officers. Then they promoted me to lieutenant and I was written out.''
Lawrence has signed a one-year contract with ``Beauty'' and moved to Studio City with her black lab/shepherd mix named Audrey (she's also keeping a place in New York).
She said she hopes she can keep the production a fresh experience. Her previous longest run with a show was nine months with ``Blood Brothers.''
``Every audience is different,'' she said. ``You just have to have fun. That's part of the joy of theater.''
Creating this production a `Beast' of a challenge
At a start-up cost of $13 million, Disney's ``Beauty and the Beast'' at the Shubert Theatre is a major extravaganza. Some facts about the show:
Gary Beach, who plays Lumiere, uses 4 pounds of liquid butane fuel per month to fire up his flaming candelabra arms.
There are 37 other pyrotechnical and special-effects stunts in the show, including an Enchantress' fireball, a hand-held ball of flames that took 1-1/2 years to develop.
Characters wear more than 140 wigs during the course of the show. The Beast's hairpiece took 20 pounds of human hair and 400 hours of manual labor to create. His tail took another 7 yards of hair to make.
The enchanted objects residing in the Beast's castle were made with 2,000 pounds of plaster and 1,000 pounds of clay.
Connecting the 600 lights used in the show (which produce 1.2 million watts - approximately the same amount of light used in a football stadium) takes three miles of cable.
SOURCE: - Janet Weeks THE FACTS What: ``Disney's Beauty and the Beast.''
Where: Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; indefinitely.
Tickets: $25 to $65, available by calling (800) 872-8997.
Photo: ``Every audience is different,'' says Yvette La wrence, backstage at ``Beauty and the Beast'' with her pooch, Audrey. ``You just have to have fun. That's part of the joy of theater.''
Jeremy Greene/Special to the Daily News
Box: Creating this production a `Beast' of a challenge (See Text)