By Kelly Boyles and Joanna Bertalan

Pic 1Some people seem destined for magical things. Joanna Bertalan, the Lehigh Valley’s premier Professional Singing Princess is one! Her fascination with Disney is one of her earliest memories. “As a little girl, I attended a Girl Scout camp, where we watched ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ It changed me!”

At age four, she made her declaration. “I was sitting at the top of the steps. I said out loud to my mother, ‘I will be a singing princess and I will sing for Disney one day!’”

Pic 2Voice lessons began early, putting professional guidance behind her already impressive pipes. By high school, Joanna had been nicknamed “the Disney Girl,” for her voice was “as clear as a bell.” She was constantly humming the beloved show tunes under her breath. In nearly two decades of formal vocal training, Joanna frequently traveled to Manhattan to pursue top vocal coaches, among them Tituss Burgess (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “30 Rock”).

Joanna credits her brother Ben for helping to fuel her early fascination with Disney princesses. He made a special effort to secure the soundtrack for each movie two weeks before release. “Thanks to him, I knew all the music by heart for the big opening day,” she gushes! Her family is also largely responsible for her enviable Disney Princess Barbie Doll collection.

Pic 3By 2004, Joanna was ready to live the dream, and was hired at Disney World – as a ride operator! “I spent seven months asking guests if they were prepared to fly off to Mars inside of an intense capsule on ‘Mission:Space,’ which was the most popular ride in Disney’s Epcot Resort.” Not quite belting out the show tunes, but she stuck with it and loved every second of it. “This was the best way to get my foot in the door since I was only ten minutes from the audition process and believe me, I could feel it!” says the determined performer. “I met some lifelong friends there too!”

Joanna first stepped onto the Magic Kingdom stage as Cinderella!  “It was such a magical moment seeing myself in the mirror with full wig and regalia! What an inspiring beginning!” She had fulfilled her declaration, and was finally living the Disney dream in Florida – briefly. Her languishing college degree and a proud father called her back to the Keystone State. “I didn’t want to disappoint him since I promised I would be closer to graduating first.”

Joanna alternated back and forth to finish her degree from Kutztown University. She earned a BA in Music specializing in Vocal Performance, with a minor in musical theater. To maintain her Disney performance status, Joanna would frequently hop on a plane and commute to Orlando. “Quite a shift! I’d do school assignments on the plane. Far from your typical college weekend experience, especially because I hate both homework and flying!”

Her dedication paid off. In just a couple auditions, she outshined literally thousands of other actors as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” Indeed, the casting director chased her into the parking lot: “Come back in, we need to see you again!”

Pic 4The fates smiled upon her: “Belle” was an even better fit for Joanna than “Cinderella!” “Good timing! Shortly after I got the role of Belle, they took away the live singing from Cinderella. Plus, Belle is a book-loving girl, who happens to be a brunette like me, with a strong connection to her father, which I also enjoy. Much more my style!”

Pic 5Joanna performed her role at MGM Studios, now known as Hollywood Studio’s stage for seven years to sing and dance in front of 12,000 guests per day! A full production encompasses dance, song lyrics, and lines of dialogue. “At one point, Belle holds a book in front of her and sings. This means I could not see the end of the stage! So in addition to the lyrics, and projecting my voice, I had to count my footsteps so I didn’t land in the audience!”

Not every show went perfectly. No matter the mishap, Joanna willed herself to remain in character. “Like every other actor, I’ve nearly forgotten lines, worked when I felt sick, and kept going when I thought the heat would make me pass out.  After all, the show must go on!”

Each performance also requires challenging costume changes.  “As if performing wasn’t intense enough, I was the first to wear Belle’s brand new dress, worth several thousand dollars, for the crucial ‘quick change’ scene.” Encrusted with crystals and hand-stitched beadwork, “that dress weighed a ton! Just the skirt alone weighed thirty pounds,” says Joanna. Centrifugal force made maneuvering the dress a constant effort. “When I swayed, I had to make sure it didn’t take me with it!”

Pic 6Audiences at her Disney performances frequently topped two thousand guests each, with three to seven shows per day. Such huge crowds might intimidate any performer; Joanna admits to her butterflies in the beginning! But only until that instant before the curtain went up on her first performance. “The moment I heard thousands of little girls screaming, ‘Belle, Belle,’ the nerves disappeared. After all, they love her as much as I do!”

As time went on, Joanna decided to take on other Beauty and the Beast musicals as well! The performance similarities were challenging when changing from one performance arena to another for the same show. “All in all, I have memorized and performed the entire movie, the Broadway version of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ performing on stage in Reading, PA, the Disney World version, of course, with shorter timing and dialogue changes, and then add to that the Disney Junior version, with yet another set of dialogue changes, to my young vocal students! It’s all in there,” she says, tapping her head! “At one point, I was alternating between two Belle characters with the local Broadway production in Reading, and then flying to Florida to do the Disney show!” Certain adjustments were acoustically challenging: “For rehearsals at Reading, we were accompanied for months by just a piano. We had only a week to get used to singing with a live, full orchestra before the crowds poured in!”

Pic 7Over the years, Joanna’s depth of experience has led to her current position teaching musical theatre in local classes and workshops. Joanna credits her participation in both middle and high school plays, and local theater, as key to her current success.  “I learned how to feel comfortable on stage at Allentown Civic Theater,” she says. “I’ll always be grateful for that learning opportunity.”

In the last five years, Joanna’s love of teaching has blossomed. “It’s become almost second nature to me to want to improve someone else’s pure talent!” She doesn’t stop at just the vocals – that’s only half the battle. For Joanna, performance must come from the soul. “It’s all about the eyes. If you look like a deer caught in the headlights, and if you don’t believe in yourself or your character, then I can’t feel it. And neither will the audience.”

Pic 8She finds coaching students quite rewarding! “I work hard to connect with my students, find out what makes them tick, and then drive toward their goals. I especially enjoy working one-on-one with private students. Then we can sort out the nitty-gritty! My younger students grow, and get so excited as their voices become stronger. Right now, two are in active productions of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I am so proud of them!”

As the Lehigh Valley’s premier Professional Singing Princess, Joanna especially enjoys interacting directly with more Disney fans these days. “Part of my performance at Disney included meeting and greeting up to six couples and their children after each show. But at the private parties and events where I now appear, I get to entertain entire rooms full of fans just like me!”

Pic 9A talented seamstress when she’s not crooning Disney tunes, Joanna creates all her own costuming with her sewing machine. “Performing in genuine Disney garb for seven years, allows me to recreate the gowns with my own flair. And believe me, those kids notice every detail!”

“Learning to improvise with enthusiastic children is a new skill I’ve picked up since Disney!” Luckily, Joanna thinks quickly on her feet.  “In a room full of young girls, each dressed in their shiniest Princess gowns, you never know what they will say. I’m on my own for an hour! Every once and awhile, one will stump me. But not often! These children ask the most insightful, clever questions of the characters I bring into their homes. No matter what, you have to stay in character!”

Disney will remain forever in Joanna’s heart: “Every party or celebration, refreshes my connection to Disney. My worries disappear when I see those faces! Even I have no choice but to fall into the fantasy again. I’m still living the Princess dream!”