MOLINE — The male lead in the new Music Guild production is a daunting beast of a role, but in his debut on the Prospect Park stage, David Baxter definitely has the strength to take it on.
“I just wanted to be part of the show,” the 27-year-old weightlifter and Pleasant Valley High School choir teacher said recently of Disney's “Beauty and the Beast.” “It's been a real honor to have them put their faith in me. I'd never done a Guild show; it's been fun and challenging, rewarding to pull myself into that and rise to their expectations.”
In addition to the drama and singing involved in the popular 1994 stage version (which ran 13 years), based on the classic 1991 animated film, a big part of the role is the massive makeup, headpiece, animal claws and costume.
“It's really not difficult having all the hair, horns, makeup and costume. It really adds more physicality to it,” said Baxter, a native of the north-central Iowa town of Algona and graduate of Luther College, where he was a music major. “I'm a very physical actor — adding all those pieces makes me feel bigger, stronger. I really love it; I don't consider it a hindrance. It's hot, but I work better when I'm warm.”
In Algona, he played the musical parts of Miles Gloriosus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Javert in “Les Misérables” and the title role in “Jekyll & Hyde.” Baxter is completing a Master of Music in conducting this summer from Michigan State University.
An avid weightlifter, he competed in the U.S. Strongman National Competition on June 8 in Columbus, Ohio.
“I've been a weightlifter since 2012, and I started competing in Strongman in 2017, “ Baxter said, noting in March he won his weight division (middleweight up to 220 lbs.) in Cedar Rapids and can deadlift 600 pounds.
“It's helped me bring a different level of physicality to the role,” he said of applying weightlifting to theater. “You can do all these things. The stigma about musicians not being athletes and vice versa, I can show that you can do it all.”
“I'm a better singer because I'm a weightlifter, and a better weightlifter because I'm a singer, being able to control your breathing,” Baxter said. “As a theater performer, the different feats you have to do, for a role especially as Beast, who has to be very strong. To be able to combine my worlds, it's really a fun opportunity, given chance to showcase that.”
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Guild last did the fairy-tale musical (turned into an extravagant film in 2017 that grossed $1.26 billion worldwide) in 2005, and the new Belle is Heather Herkelman. She's performed at Circa ‘21, Timberlake Playhouse, Spotlight Theatre, QCMG and more. Herkelman's favorite roles include Esmeralda in “Hunchback,” Mary in “Mary Poppins” and Anita in “West Side Story.”
“Heather is such a wonderful colleague and co-star,” Baxter said. “We have really good stage chemistry. She has such knowledge of the ins and outs of the Guild. She's very driven, successful in what she does. To be able to perform with her, being able to meet standards she set for herself and me, I'm honored to share stage with her.”
“His voice is beautiful,” Herkelman — a 32-year-old Clinton native, who graduated from Drake with a vocal performance and musical theater degree — said, returning the compliment. “Ever since I saw the movie when I was like 7, Belle — I've always admired how brave and strong she is. She's just a great female role.”
Of the musical, she said: “It's such a great mix of the classic, adding new elements to it, new music. It's just interesting to see all the characters, costumes come to life.”
Herkelman said it's appropriate that Guild vet Adam Lounsberry, who played the pompous cad Gaston in '05, returns in the new production to light up the stage as Lumiere. “That is cool. I'm really happy with our portrayal of it,” she said, adding she's also happy to work with director Bob Williams again.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Herkelman said of the sizable cast and production. “The biggest challenge is the transformation of the prince on stage. It's a little different. It will be so magical; everyone will be in awe of how it's done. There are a lot of colorful characters.”
Williams wrote in his program note that a patron once asked why Music Guild cast and crew bother when they're not paid for their efforts.
“We bother because we enjoy the opportunity to step away from our lives for a few hours each night and create a world filled with song and dance and happy endings,” Williams wrote. “We bother because we recognize the importance of art in a community and believe our contribution to the arts helps to enhance the quality of life in the QCA. We bother because each show provides us with one more opportunity to be together with friends and family and the common bond created with each of them through every production we share.
“And we bother because there is something about theater and the arts that fills the soul and makes the dark parts of our days just a little brighter.”