Disney’s The Little Mermaid
St. Albert Children’s Theatre
Nov. 21 to 24 and Nov. 29 to Dec. 1
5 St. Anne Street
Tickets: Adult $30, Child/senior $23.50. Call 780-459-1542 or through ticketmaster.ca
Since 1989, The Little Mermaid has been part of the musical lexicon for millions of children and adults. Its worldwide popularity surprised many, considering how the original Hans Christian Andersen fairytale had such a gruesome and sad ending.
But Disney modernized the princess genre and spruced up the narrative with engaging animated characters and catchy, unforgettable songs. Currently, it is one of Disney’s most in-demand musicals and local audiences have the opportunity to enjoy this magical underwater adventure.
The animated film musical turns 30 this year, and on its anniversary St. Albert Children’s Theatre is poised to make a splash with The Little Mermaid, the musical version. It largely stays true to the original film and opens Nov. 21 for a seven-day run at the Arden Theatre.
“It sparkles with theatricality and the scene changes move quickly. One of the biggest challenges is keeping all the balls in the air,” said artistic director Janice Flower.
In a quick recap of this magical aquatic kingdom, a beautiful young mermaid named Ariel yearns to leave home, trade her tail for human legs and live on land.
She’s a dreamer and a budding feminist who rebels against a tyrannical sea king father and insists on making her own decisions. Though her destiny is to be a siren, she finds the role constricting and ventures to the surface, disobeying family and friends.
Ariel’s obsession with the surface prompts her to rescue a drowning prince during a squall. Unexpectedly, she falls in love with him. When Ariel’s father, King Triton, learns of the encounter, he destroys her dreams of living on land.
But Ariel sets out to defy her father and convince Prince Eric she’s the girl destined for him. But winning the love of the prince is no easy matter.
In desperation, the naïve mermaid makes a Faustian bargain with the tentacled Ursula, an unscrupulous sea witch. Using dark magic, Ursula turns Ariel into a human – but at a terrible cost.
Thematically, Flower explains the two-act musical showcases Ariel’s coming of age as a free-thinking, modern heroine – an attribute that resonates with the young cast.
“Ariel wanted to be on land before she met Eric. This was a way to be her own true person and be comfortable in her own true skin. Eric just perpetuated it.”
For the original film, the Academy Award-winning team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote songs that propelled the action forward – a Broadway technique Disney studios had never used. Many of the duo’s most sought-after film hits are in the musical: Part of Your World, Kiss the Girl and Under the Sea.
After Ashman’s untimely death, lyricist Glen Slater was invited on board to write several additional songs with Menken. One of the musical’s most forceful new songs is Ursula’s I Want the Good Times Back, a signature piece revealing the half-woman, half-octopus sea witch’s past indiscretions.
Julia Shaw, a Grade 12 student at Spruce Grove’s St. Peter the Apostle Catholic High School, is cast as Ursula, the demonic villain.
“She looks like the bride of Frankenstein,” laughs Shaw during a fitting for a Gazette photoshoot. Attired in a voluminous black dress with tentacles hanging from her waist, Shaw is an attention grabber.
“She’s certainly not the most pleasant person, but I like how dynamic she is. I try to see the reason why she is the way she is. Why she feels so vulnerable.”
Shaw adds one of the changes from the original 2008 Broadway musical is an added back-story to Ursula’s character. In this current version, Ursula is the sister of King Triton. Eager to ascend the royal throne after their father Poseidon dies, Ursula murders her sisters.
Only young Triton survives. When he comes of age, Triton banishes his sister from the underwater kingdom for using black magic. In a revenge act, Ursula manipulates Ariel, Triton’s favourite daughter and his greatest weakness.
A redheaded Jillian Aisenstat also arrives for a fitting in Ariel’s body-hugging, emerald green tail. Unlike Shaw’s character that is a polar opposite to the actress, Aisenstat shares common traits with Ariel.
“She’s curious about everything, about the human world. I’m curious and I ask questions. She loves clarity and learning. I love learning. She has a close support system. Sebastian and Flounder are part of a tight-knit group that cares about her. And I have friends and family who are there for me. My Ariel is pure, innocent and excited, but also longing and hopeful,” said Aisenstat, a Grade 11 student at Paul Kane High.
Flower has worked the actors' tails off since September to produce creative, intelligent acting. One of the biggest challenges involved creating a world where actors move as fluidly as swimming sea creatures.
Enter Heelys, a special type of sneaker with built-in wheels that allow gravity-bound wearers the ability to skim hard surfaces with elegance and near-balletic lightness.
“Heelys really do help a lot. You get the feel of gliding through a marine world,” Aisenstat says.
Heelys were introduced after production designer Scott Weir returned from seeing a Broadway production where actors wore merblades.
“The kids were way better than I was at picking them up,” laughs company choreographer Jackie Pooke.
Unlike SACT's 2018 production of the more low-key Tuck Everlasting, “the traffic of this show is quicker and it was a major challenge just visualizing what we wanted. And we wanted lots of movement that comes together and blends in,” Pooke explains.
“At first it was organized chaos. Some kids had never been on Heelys or ice skates or roller blades."
With 30 actors in the cast, 17 wearing Heelys, and a multi-tiered set design, the choreographic challenges proved massive.
“Just co-ordinating the timing, the changes and the constant flow from different directions and making sure no one crashed was challenging. But the kids developed confidence and they persevered. Learning to sing while on Heelys was a whole different challenge,” said Pooke, whose sunny optimism naturally encourages hard work and persistence from young actors.
Anchoring all the diverse elements is Marissa Kochanski’s costumes, props and set design.
“Marissa was all about creating different levels on the set to give Janice and Jackie a lot of room to play. The visual levels are different heights. It’s pretty boring designing just a flat piece. But if you’re able to create levels, especially under water, you see a variety of creatures, not just those on the seabed,” said Carlie Kristie, Kochanski’s assistant.
This entailed building a variety of marine puppets ranging from jellyfish and sea snakes to schools of floating fish. Additional props include a coral reef constructed from netting, two-foot high seashells, Triton’s trident, a ship’s mast, rigging and giant rocks.
With a limited budget, Kochanski and Kristie shopped at budget-friendly Value Village for a number of unique pieces. For instance, in one scene, six princesses vie for Prince Eric's hand in marriage.
“Marissa wanted the dresses to look like a box of crayons. We went for an eighties style with puffy sleeves and they tend to be outrageous,” Kristie laughs.
The most challenging and creative turned out to be Ursula’s octopus appendages.
“We experimented with cat tubes (play tubes). It didn’t work and we went to dryer tubes covered in black and purple material.”
The Gazette spoke with numerous individuals associated with The Little Mermaid and everyone feels energized with this fin-tastic show.
Pooke said it best. “For all of us that grew up watching it, it’s a classic tale with great characters, great music and great choreography for all. To me, seeing kids perform for kids in live theatre is pretty outstanding.”