Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Joanna Bertalan: The 'Belle' is back and with a new twist in reading

When Belle walks across the stage, holding her book rather close to her face and reading intently, it's no wonder she doesn't lose sight of where she's going. For Allentown's Joanna Bertalan, that was one of the more challenging scenes in her seven years of playing the Princess Belle in "Beauty and the Beast" at Walt Disney World – one that gave her recurring nightmares about falling off the stage. Now the ‘Belle' is back home and bringing her love of reading into local classrooms with a special message that "you can do anything if you believe in yourself."

Bertalan, 27, fortunately never tumbled from the Orlando, Fla., stage despite the amount of action around her as she sang live. She also learned to maneuver a 25-second "quick change" for the scene where Belle transforms into "Princess Belle" with a complete costume makeover.

"That was the most challenging scene," recalled Bertalan, who also performed as Cinderella in Disney World's production. "I had to run off stage and down the stairs, where five or six costumers helped to completely change me from head to toe. Off came one wig and on went another…and then I had to get back on stage. One time, they put the wrong shoes on me, and with my normal height at 5-feet, 9 inches, it altered my dancing somewhat. But looking back, I had a great experience. I loved it in every way. The audiences were superb, as were the people I worked with. We were like a family. …It's touching to know that one of my co-workers asked me when I was coming back to the show because my costume was still there."

Bertalan, a 2002 graduate of William Allen High School, isn't certain if she'll return to the Disney World stage. She said she can never get enough of Disney, and so she brought back with her to the Lehigh Valley the princesses of her dreams. She started a business,, where she performs as Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Snow White, Cinderella and Tinker Bell for children's home parties. She designs her own costumes and wigs with much creativity and craftiness. She also teaches private voice. But coming from a family of educators, she developed a special reading program geared for elementary-age children.

"Because Belle always talks about how much she loves books and having an imagination, she is the princess I use for schools," Bertalan explained. "Reading can open so many doors for children. Belle also shows that it's okay to be yourself. Many people don't understand her but she followed her dreams and proved that you can do anything if you believe in yourself. I think the message really gets through to kids."

It's no wonder Bertalan's teaching doesn't fall far from the tree. Her mother, Ruth, is a French teacher at Raub Middle School. Her sister, Angie Shaffer, teaches at Salisbury Elementary School. Her brother, Ben, is a head librarian at the Allentown Public Library.

"I knew I wanted to sing for Disney since I was 3," said Bertalan, whose brother would take her to see the animated films when they first came out in local theaters. "It was a dream come true," she said. She just might be in the audience at Easton's State Theatre on May 1, when Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," the smash hit Broadway musical, begins a three-day run.

Back at Allen, Bertalan was awarded the Outstanding Music Student, which encouraged her to earn a music degree with a focus in vocal performance at Kutztown University. She was able to work as a Disney World employee through a college program and at the age of 19, landed the role of Cinderella following an audition. Just before she was to open in the production, she said show management decided that the ‘live voice' of the show would be a recording instead. That led her to audition for the role of Princess Belle.

"That was intimidating," she explained of the process. "The auditions were held worldwide, and that meant I was a number. There were 500-plus people who auditioned for the role. Overall, it was a good experience and that's how I was going to leave it. I was walking to my car when the manager ran after me and asked me to come back inside. ‘We want to offer you the role,' they said. It threw me…it thrilled me to be the cool princess."

The show schedule was hectic, she said, with performances a few days a week and with two to seven 40-minute shows per day. Sometimes she was able to switch off with another performer. But she was well disciplined for the stage from her work at Civic Theatre of Allentown. In October 1999, she landed the role of teenager Sally Simpson in "The Who's Tommy," directed and choreographed by William Sanders. The two main songs for the role were "Sally Simpson" and "Sally Simpson's Question."

"That show changed my life," she recalled. "I was 14 and I didn't know how much I loved being in musical theater until then. Bill (Sanders) was so professional and really made the cast come together. We were a very close bunch. It was torture for all of us when it was over. A piece of you always stays with a superb show like that."

Sanders said he cast Bertalan in the role because she had the vitality and energy needed for the character. "Her talent and enthusiasm were infectious," he said. "Her look was perfect – that of a young fashion model and a typical British golden girl. She absorbed direction like a sponge and was an absolute delight. The show was, and she was and is a great success."

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Moravian College music professor and pianist Dan DeChellis is looking forward to Saturday, March 24, when he celebrates the release of "My Age of Anxiety" in downtown Easton at Black & Blue pub from 8 to 11 p.m. It's the fourth CD project by his trio over the past five years, and a collection of highly personal tunes written by DeChellis, an improviser at heart. Featured on the release is longtime friend and bassist, Mitch Shelly, and up-and-coming drum prodigy, Zack Martin. The music of the Dan DeChellis Trio combines original music that blends jazz harmony with pop/rock melody and form. Most recently, DeChellis was a nominee for Best Pianist and Best All-Around Performer at the Lehigh Valley Music Awards.

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The 10th annual Juried Spring Fine Arts & Craft Festival presented by the Reading-Berks Chapter of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen will be held Saturday and Sunday, March 24 and 25 in Keystone Hall at Kutztown University. Featured work includes traditional wood turning, furniture, braided and penny rugs, folk art, redware, and quilting, plus contemporary glass, jewelry, ceramics and photography. And there's lots more fine artwork, along with live music and antique appraisals. Saturday hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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If you like puppets, and you like Muppets, you'll love John Tartaglia's "ImaginOcean," billed as "the live, glow-in-the-dark musical" done in black-light (remember that from the 60's?) on Saturday, March 24 at 2 p.m., at Allentown Symphony Hall. The Tony-nominated puppeteer Tartaglia, who starred in the

Broadway musicals "Avenue Q," "Shrek," and "Beauty and the Beast," shows off all he's learned with this underwater adventure revolving around friendship. It's sure to be a winner with the kids!

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When violin soloist Karina Canellakis takes to the stage with the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra on Saturday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m., at First Presbyterian Church in Allentown, she'll be taking a piece of the Lehigh Valley with her. In a program titled "The Singing Violin," she'll be playing selections by Mozart, Vaughan Williams and Sibelius on an instrument owned by local investor/musician Dan Braden of Bethlehem.

Braden acquired the 18th century violin years back after making successful investments in the stock market in the 1990s. He sought to protect his assets by diversifying and having worked in the violin business and having played French horn with the Sinfonia for more than 25 years, he decided that acquiring old instruments would have great long-term value. Through the years, he has allowed many of his historic instruments to be played, maintained and enjoyed by establishing long-term loans with promising musicians – Canellakis being one of them. The rising star happened to receive Braden's violin when he recognized her name for consideration – he had once played in an orchestra in New York that was conducted by her father.

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