Theatre Baton Rouge is getting ready to bring some of Disney’s most iconic characters to life in the regional premiere of the hit Broadway musical, “The Little Mermaid.”
Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s beloved story, “The Little Mermaid,” tells the story of Ariel, daughter of King Triton, who falls in love with a human prince after saving him from drowning. The Broadway version of “The Little Mermaid” was staged in New York City from 2008-09 before New York director Glenn Casale was tapped to revamp the show. He and his team revised the script, wrote new songs and added special effects including flying sequences. This musical rendition of the story also expands on Ariel’s story, giving her more motivation as well as an agency. It’s not about her wanting a prince; it’s about finding her own place in the world.
“I believe it’s about a girl who does not fit in in the world in which she lives, and desperately wants to find a place that she does feel is hers,” said Director Jenny Mayfield. “It just so happens she meets someone who has the same feeling of displacement in the world…This is something they have in common, and it’s like Match.com at its best.”
While the story has some changes, Mayfield reassures that you will see the beloved characters as you remember them.
“[The audience] wants to see those characters. I think when you’re dealing with something like Disney, you do have to realize that people are going to come expecting to see the iconic recognized characters,” said Mayfield, whose main source material was the 1989 film. “What makes them different is the actors inhabiting the roles and the focus of the story we’re trying to tell…I think it’s really interesting to try to capture those iconic moments from the film on stage. For example, I love that moment when Eric washes up on shore and Ariel is singing to him. That is a one of those moments we try to capture.”
Taking on the role of Ariel is Emily Heck, who auditioned specifically for the part. Heck has experience playing as the mermaid princess with the company Perfectly Princess Parties, by going to children’s’ birthday parties as Ariel. Heck relates to Ariel in the sense of wanting to find one’s place in the world, which she found by getting involved in performing. There’s a lot of pressure to be sure playing one of Disney’s most iconic princess, but overall it’s been a wonderful experience for her.
“I have enough practice pretending to be her so I thought maybe I can go for it, you know?” Heck said. “It’s been a dream, really.
The Little Mermaid has been one of my favorite movies ever since I was little.”
Heck has been having a blast working on the show, citing “Beyond My Wildest Dream” as her favorite song in the show, and seeing her human legs for the first time as her favorite moment.
“Overall, any Disney-themed musical brings so much joy. The nostalgia and the powerful message of Ariel changing her fate for something she wants; to be comfortable in her own skin,” Heck said. “There’s a deeper message underneath Disney movies and musicals. It’s a challenge because people just expect you to get up on the stage and be this girly Disney princess, and that’s not what it’s all about. There’s heart to the show.”
And Ariel will indeed swim underneath the sea, thanks to the fly system that will be used for the duration of the show. One of the first companies to start flying for theatre, Flying by Foy, will spend two days directing the actors on how to fly. There are moments that will be artistic, such as when Prince Eric is falling under water while unconscious. Once the looks were decided, the TBR team and the flight team will direct the actors on how to accomplish those looks.
“For ‘Part of your World,’ I’ll be in the air for the majority of the song. It’s a little scary; I’ve never flown on stage before,” Heck said. “But Jenny has made me feel a whole lot better about the process and how my safety comes first.”
“Her being mid-air like that will give her a special insight into the character,” Mayfield said. “Ariel is this weightless, ethereal, nonhuman entity, and the fact that Emily is getting to experience this character while flying, that’s an actor’s dream.”
While the audience gets to see the hard work of the actors every night, it’s the dedication of the technical crews that truly creates Disney magic. As the cast prepares for their roles, the technical crews are hard at work building the set, creating costumes and designing lighting effects to mimic sunlight under the ocean waves.
So how does one create an entire kingdom under the sea from scratch? Well, you have to spend a lot of time with the script for one, according to scenic designer Kenneth Mayfield, who bought the director’s cut of the movie to keep up with the feel of the film.
“We’re not trying to mimic the movie, but we want to stay close to the movie and what we expect out of ‘The Little Mermaid’ as much as possible,” Mayfield said. “We’re definitely trying to theatricalize as much as what the script gives us that is so closely related to the movie.”
After deciding on how the world should feel, the construction crew at TBR began working on bringing the world under the sea come to life on stage. One of the things Mayfield focused on was how to differentiate the mermaid world from the human world.
“We’ll be doing that a lot with the way we paint the set, with how we design the set and also with how the set is lit,” Mayfield said. “When we’re under the sea, we’re going to be very much in the blues and greens, and once we go up into the palace, we’re really going to be in the yellows and golds and the vibrancy of living in the sun.”
But the construction crew isn’t the only one hard at work at TBR. The costume crew spent time cutting fabric and sewing outfits to make beautiful sea creature costumes by hand for each and every performer in the musical.
“You have to find a way to create something that has that Disney look, but at the same time is original and a little bit of your own,” said Crystal Brown, costume designer. “You don’t want to disappoint your audience because they expect the characters to look a certain way.”
With the costume designs in mind, Brown selected fabrics to bring the characters to life, such as sequins and stretch fabric to create the illusion of mermaid tails.
“They’re going to be more of an illusion of a mermaid’s tail,” Brown said. “We have some very nice sequin blue material to give them a scaly look and flowy fabric at the bottom to mimic fins.”
According to Brown, the costume that had the most time spent on was for Ursula, due to her tentacles, and by adding elements of ocean life to her dress, plus a little bit of glitz and sparkle. Brown’s favorite characters to work on were the ensemble creatures, which range from fish and coral under the sea to frogs and butterflies in the pond during “Kiss the Girl.”
“When you get to do something that’s this creative, how can you not enjoy it?” Brown said.
Photo by Rande Archer.