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Starring in "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway and in London, Grant Norman spent years hidden behind a mask.

Now, as the Beast in the touring production of "Beauty and the Beast," which opens tonight in Shea's Performing Arts Center, he staggers around under 34 pounds of hair.

It's easy to suspect that the 38-year-old actor is typecast. Both characters, after all, are seen as, well, monstrous. Both suffer some measure of isolation. With a connoisseur's discrimination, though, Norman insists that the roles are very different. And, when all is said and done, he prefers playing the Beast.

"For me, 'Phantom' was much more difficult," he says. "The singing in 'Phantom' was more challenging, on all levels. The acting is more challenging, too. It's a dramatic tragedy. There's no letup. It's intense and then it's more intense," he laughs.

Being the Beast is less emotionally taxing, Norman explains, than being the man in the mask. As the Phantom, he says, "you're at the end of your rope, and then you disappear. There's no resolution. You just go down and down and down. It's draining." In comparison, "Beauty and the Beast" ends on a bouncy note. "You get to lighten up. You fall in love and turn into a prince."

Most cultures around the globe can claim some version of the "Beauty and the Beast" story, so it shouldn't be surprising that over 15 million people worldwide have seen the Tony Award-winning musical. In New York, "Beauty and the Beast" is swinging into its sixth year on Broadway. In England, it won the 1998 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, and it's currently playing in five productions around the world.

Popular as the show is, though, Norman has found, to his relief, that audiences seem to have a lighter, healthier relationship with it than they had with "Phantom."

"I was 31 when I started 'Phantom,' and it was very strange for me," he says, slowly. "The show has really got a cult following, and the Phantom fans were voicing their opinions about the different Phantoms. It's weird on that level." Because the show was a tragedy, Norman adds, people were swept away by its emotion. "It brings out the more dramatic in people."

Not so "Beauty and the Beast," a fairy tale with a happy ending.

"People don't get as carried away," Norman says.

Hair and Gatorade

Having played the Beast since September, Norman has gotten used to his nightly transformation. About an hour before every performance, he sits down, and makeup artist Tiffany Hicks goes to work on him. Norman and Hicks go back a long way. She did his makeup for "Phantom." And she's an authority on the Phantom's appearance. "She did the original 'Phantom,'" Norman says. "She did Michael Crawford's makeup."

First, Hicks gives Norman a prosthetic chin piece, an eyebrow piece, jowls and other augmentations. Next, the head of the Hair Department shows up, and gives Norman "really long" facial hair and a wig with a pair of buffalo-style horns.

A few minutes later, the actor dons the costume itself. Though the getup's huge and heavy, Norman has learned to live with it. It doesn't even interfere with intimate moments shared with Belle, played by Susan Owen.

"The most difficult costume is the formal outfit, which I wear when Beauty and the Beast are dancing the waltz. But it's elastic, and it's built to the body. It's not too bad," he says. The only problem? "It's very hot," Norman says. "I'll drink a lot of water and Gatorade."

If the Beast can be demanding physically, the part's not a picnic to sing, either. The Beast expresses himself with a lot of primitive, guttural noises. "It's about growling," Norman explains. "If you don't do that easily, you'd have a problem."

Do such histrionics come easily to him? "Fortunately, yes, I think," he admits.

Still, there's an art to the growl. Though loud, rage-filled bellowing may come naturally to spectators at Bills games, they're a different matter when they have to be performed professionally, on stage, on demand. Furthermore, the deep, threatening sounds also propel Norman, who's naturally a light tenor, into a lower register.

The perfect roar, Norman says, is the result of experience and technique. "It's like relaxing your throat and gargling. If you're not relaxed, you'll become tense, and that's when you'll slip up. You have to be relaxed."

He laughs. "Fortunately, I'm not damaging anything."

Norman has to watch his voice carefully, because he has big plans for it. When his contract for "Beauty and the Beast" expires in September, he's not sure whether he'll continue the show or go home to New York, where he and his wife live. If he goes home, he could find himself pursuing a path far removed from phantoms and beasts. Friends have encouraged him to consider taking up opera.

With that in mind, he's listening to language tapes on the road. And once he hangs up those 34 pounds of hair, there's a good chance he'll be taking lessons and meeting with vocal coaches.

"The older I get, the more I like opera," he says. "If I could be a Puccini tenor, that would be great."

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