I make no apologies for writing about the dark things in life. I believe sharing my struggles and my successes in coping will help increase awareness of mental health issues, at least a little.
However, my life is not all dark. As I race towards the conclusion of my naval career, I will rest my inner eye on the good times as well as the bad. I have experienced many extraordinary moments because of my service in the Navy. Allow me to share one tonight.
In 1999 I was stationed in Spain. That November I flew with a Navy Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) tour group to London over Thanksgiving. Unlike my tour mates, I had an ace up the sleeve—my friend Christine. Christine and I had been at Florida State University together, and she was then working at the FSU study center in London. I pretty much ditched the MWR group and spent the four days hanging out with her and her students. I saw Canterbury, the famous British Museum, London Bridge, and HMS Belfast. I ate in my first pub (The Bell and Crown in Canterbury), got lost using the Underground, and spent my first-ever solitary day of exploring a foreign city (London, of course) when Christine had to work.
We both wanted to go to the theatre and take in a show. Phantom of the Opera was our first choice, but the show was completely sold out into the year 2000. In fact, every show in the West End was sold out…every show but one: Disney’s stage version of Beauty and the Beast at the Dominion Theatre.
Christine could only get us standing-room-only tickets for the Nov. 27, 1999, performance. Standing room only for three hours. I was not terribly excited about seeing a Disney cartoon-turned-musical or about standing for three hours (of course this is coming from a man who, for years now, has preferred a standing desk and spends work days on his feet!). I never told Christine any of this back then. To do so would have been quite churlish. She had, after all, gone to the effort of getting tickets. Besides, when else would I get to see a major stage production in London’s West End?
So we went to the theatre that cold November night, found some good floor, and waited. The lights dimmed, the curtain opened, the music began playing…
…And Magic swept us away.
Three hours never felt so much like three minutes as they did that night. Somewhere in the first few minutes of the show I completely forgot about my feet. Beauty and the Beast was simply Magic.
The music burst upon us like a tide, sweeping us into a fantastic world where clocks talk, candlesticks dance, and unlikely love redeems two unhappy lives.
I was enjoying it so much I actually resented the intermission!
There is simply no way to truly describe the moment where the Beast transforms into the Prince on stage in front of everyone. Disney did not cheat. They did not have one actor play the Beast and use an artistic switcheroo to substitute another actor for the Prince. Nope; part of the selling point for Beauty and the Beast was the same actor would play both Beast and Prince and would transform on stage.
I know the Beast costume for this scene was modified and that lights and smoke and music helped obscure the actor getting out of it. But the basic mechanical points of logic do not explain how it was done so…so seamlessly. The Beast floats up in a magical haze of colliding reality. Slowly rotating before the packed house he changes. The whole illusion was carried off with all the artful wonder of the greatest CGI effect in the movies…only this was real and it was live.
That whole evening still ranks as one of the greatest experiences I had while in the Navy, but the moment of the Beast’s transformation is in a class all its own.
Beauty and Beast closed its run in the Dominion Theatre on December 11, 1999. Christine and I saw it only 14 days before the end of that splendid engagement. Earl Carpenter sung the Beast’s part; Annalene Beechey was Belle (I still have the program). I’d never heard of either of them before, but I’ve never forgotten them since.
We returned to modern Britain emotionally spent but too excited to call it a night. The wonderfully unkempt energy of London beckoned. We walked down to Trafalgar Square and then back up to Soho for a late dinner, not even noticing the cold. It was entertaining watching the real-life characters parading around us. These young Londoners sported clothes and hair so violently colorful you’d think they had been mugged by a paint store. For decades Soho had a reputation as being the center of London’s sex industry. By 1999 it had become a rather respectably upscale district…but the wildlife atmosphere and just a hint of its sexual past impertinently lingered in the air.
However, despite the characters we mingled with in modern 20th century London, our conversation was dominated by the characters we had mingled with in magical 18th century France. The next day the rest of the MWR group and I returned to Spain, but those three hours remain vivid 19 years later. Three hours that still take my breath away; three hours for which I am forever indebted to Christine for.
It was a good night.