Emily Ahrens keeps two photographs on her dressing room mirror in the lower level of the NorShor Theatre, a prep space away from home for her three-month stint rehearsing for and playing Belle in the Duluth Playhouse's production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
To the left is Laura Osnes, a Twin Cities' actor, Ahrens' favorite, who won a reality competition in 2007 to land the role of Sandy in "Grease" on Broadway - and then stayed there. Most recently, she was the title princess in "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella."
"It's possible," Osnes scrawled along with her autograph.
To the right is actor-singer-dancer Susan Egan, who first played Belle on Broadway. In this case, Ahrens got more than an autograph; she got tips on how to play the bookish hero and an autograph.
"She mainly focused on making sure that Belle is realistic and not focusing on the fact that she's a Disney princess," Ahrens recalled during a recent visit to her dressing room, where she was waiting in a black wig cap for her stage-hair to be ready. "And to not play her like a damsel, to play her like a heroine."
It's advice that Ahrens, the Disney-est of Disney fans, has taken and put into action as she plays a dream role - and she drove eight hours, to Columbus, Ohio, to get it. Osnes and Egan are part of "Broadway Princess Party," a concert featuring the vocalist with Disney cred.
Ahrens bought the VIP package so she could get facetime with her favorites
The Illinois native has a strong background in princess parts, including Ariel in "The Little Mermaid," Sleeping Beauty in "Into the Woods" and a handful of characters with Rockford, Ill.'s Once Upon a Dream - a company that hosts princess parties. Also of note, among the skills listed on her resume, after roller skating, is Disney trivia, which has proven profitable online and at themed trivia nights.
"I've won money," she said.
Ahrens grew up during the Disney renaissance, when movies like "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas" were fresh. She wore out her copy of "The Little Mermaid" three times, not to mention wearing the pajamas and sleeping on the sheets. For years, her grandmother requested solo performances of "Part of This World."
She also related to Belle. Ahrens was a reader, the kind who would bring a book when she went to a restaurant with her parents. She still is: there is a copy of "The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women" in her bag, and she has plans to read a biography of Walt Disney next.
Ahrens is self-described as "a very optimistic person," and the Disney ideology matches her own.
"That (idea) that anything is possible - with hard work and luck," she said.
Ahrens is a relatively recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At the last minute, she ditched out on a lifetime assumption that she would teach English and direct school plays and instead went for a B.A. in musical theater. No regrets. Since graduation, she's had a steady stream of jobs - most recently a summer spent with St. Croix Festival Theatre.
She found the Belle gig online, and though it didn't necessarily work with her schedule, she auditioned anyway with the song "Say the Word" from "The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown."
"Of course you're looking for someone with a gorgeous voice, and she had that like crazy," said director Joe Chvala, known for his Twin Cities' troupe Flying Foot Forum. "What was special about Emily, though, she brought an individuality. She brought spunkiness and a little different take on it that was charming and fun and will pique people's curiosity."
Ahrens said she got the Duluth Playhouse's email while in the parking lot at Walmart. She read the words "you're Belle," and: "I cried," she said. "I burst into the happiest tears ever. I dropped my bag and started screaming."
The Duluth Playhouse's production is in line with its traditional pick of a family-friendly musical during the holidays. It's the story of a bookish loner who goes to the castle of a cursed prince currently encased in the body of a beast (Shad Olsen) to free her father from captivity. She trades his freedom for her own and comes to know the beast in a different way.
There is also a collection of dancing-singing house ornaments - Matais Valero, Michele Sorvik, Cadence Graber, Tanya Moore, Drew Autio - to keep her company.
This is the first time the Playhouse has worked with Chvala, though it's been a long time coming. He has worked with the University of Minnesota theater graduates, and his work- in-progress film "The Split Rock Shuffle" includes Duluth musicians.
Theater-goers will see his mark, specifically, during Gaston's (played by Evan Kelly) big solo.
As for the rest of the show:
"I wanted to emphasize the whole idea of how Belle is considered odd in her village because she reads, for one, and wants more than just the day-to-day life," he said. "She's excited about life; she's passionate. She's not doing it to make people mad, but it angers them."
It's a fairy tale, Chvala said, but it's also a cautionary tale.
"That's the part that resonates with me - trying to understand people," he said.
If you go
What: The Duluth Playhouse's production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thur.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Today through Dec. 16
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
Tickets: Start at $35 at www.duluthplayhouse.org or (218) 733-7555