“I knew I wanted to re-brand the Disney princess,” director Marcia Milgrom Dodge tells PEOPLE

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beauty and the beast
Credit: Teresa Castracane

Twenty miles north of Washington, D.C., a tale as old as time feels refreshingly new.

"I hate that I keep saying I could have never imagined, but really — I could have never imagined it," Jade Jones, who stars as Belle in Olney Theatre Center's production of Beauty and the Beast, tells PEOPLE of playing their first lead role. In fact, before starring as Belle, Jones had never even shared a kiss with a male actor onstage.

Jones, a 31-year-old Black actor, uses she/they pronouns and identifies as queer and curvy.

"I've never seen anyone like me on stage in a role like this, in an ingénue role, in a desired role," Jones says. "And I just think it's important because it's not like we don't exist. I feel like, even with art, we are kind of erased out of the narrative."

They add, "We have romantic stories in our own lives, but it's just not depicted on stage or on screen, really."

beauty and the beast
Credit: Teresa Castracane

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, however, insisted her production of Beauty and the Beast would represent real life.

"I knew I wanted to re-brand the Disney princess," she explains, adding that the idea came to her long before actors cried out for Broadway to return with an eye toward diversity, representation and inclusion after the pandemic shutdown.

"It was really important to me to also sneak in some messy real life underneath a fairytale. And what is more real life than different body types, different ethnicities?" she says.

"When you look at the Disney canon, it's all very Caucasian and kind of 'size two.' The other thing that was important to me was that the transformation of the Beast didn't produce some 'perfect' — and I put it in quotes — specimen."

The Beast is played by Evan Ruggiero, who identifies as a straight male actor who just happens to have one leg. "I don't feel any different than any other person out there who may have two legs," he says. "It's just who I am now." (The 31-year-old's right leg was amputated above the knee after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 19.)

The world of the classic Disney tale may look different from the 1991 animated film or the subsequent 2017 live-action remake starring Emma Watson, but Milgrom Dodge assures that not one line of text has been changed from the stage adaptation. Instead, she uses what she calls "color-conscious casting" and pulls from clues in the script to create a backstory for a Beauty and the Beast that reflects the world we live in.

beauty and the beast
Credit: Teresa Castracane

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At their auditions, both Jones and Ruggiero assumed they'd be seen for other characters — Jones for Mrs. Potts or even Cogsworth, and Ruggiero for Lumière. After all, Ruggiero says, "I could do a candlestick tap dance on my peg leg, and isn't that what everybody wants to see?"

But when they read for the lead roles, Milgrom Dodge knew she had something special.

What Beauty and the Beast is really about, says the director, is "two outsiders, two people who are perceived by others as being odd and different and unworthy." And audiences are resonating with her vision.

"I heard little Black girls scream when Belle showed up, and [they] turned to their mothers and said, 'Is that Belle?' " says Dodge. "At one performance, there was a man in a wheelchair. I didn't get to talk to him afterwards, but I thought, 'Have you ever seen yourself on stage before in a fairytale?' Probably not."

Jones and Ruggiero say they're getting fan mail — and one message, in particular, stands out: a note from a struggling high schooler who recently came out as gay.

"He said, 'Theater saved my life,' " Jones recounts, " 'and seeing people like you has saved my life.' "

Beauty and the Beast runs through Jan. 2, 2022, at the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland.