The Little Mermaid sings its way to the Schuster

The Little Mermaid splashes onto the Schuster stage from Aug. 8-13; photo: Mark & Tracy Photography

By Tim Smith

Disney films seem to live forever, and not just on home video. When they release a new animated feature, chances are pretty high that it will be re-imagined as a stage musical or a Disney on Ice production. “The Little Mermaid” is no exception. The Broadway musical will settle into the Schuster Center for one week beginning Aug. 8.

The Little Mermaid is a stage musical produced by Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight, and licensed through Disney Theatrical, based on the 1989 film of the same name. It was inspired by the classic story by Hans Christian Andersen about a mermaid named Ariel who dreams of the world above the sea and gives up her voice to find her true love. The book is by Douglas Wright, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman, and additional lyrics by Glenn Slater. The production officially opened on Broadway Jan. 10, 2008 and closed on Aug. 30, 2009 after 685 performances and 50 previews. Since 2012, a modified version of the original production has toured extensively. The current production retains many of the popular songs from the film, including “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” and “Part of Your World.”

Broadway veteran Jennifer Allen plays the villainess Ursula, the octopus lady who steals Ariel’s voice and wants to take over the undersea kingdom of Ariel’s father, King Triton. Allen has been with the current touring company off and on for two years and was initially drawn to the role because of its depth.

“I liked the prospect of the role, and the new writing by Douglas Wright really brought the character forward and deepened the role in new and exciting ways,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed playing Ursula with new aspects that were added from the film. Because the writing is so good for the villain, she isn’t one-dimensional. She was rejected by her family to become what she is, basically a murderer and a thief. It’s a really juicy part.”

The underwater setting and story about aquatic characters requires unusual technical designs and strategies to create gliding movements for the actors, among other production challenges.

“We all have different challenges,” Allen says. “Mine is basically wearing tentacles and using them like eight tiny puppets. It’s fun and challenging, but it’s also very heavy. In place of swimming we have people on flying rigs. It looks very realistic. The flying is challenging for them, but it’s a very exciting component of this production.”

Bringing a production of this size and scope to life on a different stage each week requires hard work from every member of the company, as well as a lot of coordinated efforts.

“We travel with a base crew, like a head of wardrobe and a stage manager,” Allen says. “We only bring along the conductor, pianist, and drummer, so we always use local musicians. We also use a local crew for wardrobe, makeup, and props, among other things. Adjustments always need to be made to accommodate the set to the theatre. We all have to be very helpful to the director and the local crew. That’s a tricky component, but we’ve learned how to communicate to make it work… Our conductor also comes in two days early to rehearse the local musicians.”

Allen is no stranger to the rigors of stage work. She has appeared in nine Broadway shows, and her most recent credits include The Bridges of Madison County, Sister Act, and Memphis. She’s also toured with several productions and has had to make the adjustment to life on the road.

“It’s another challenge,” she says. “I have a family, but we have some breaks that make it work. During the late summer part of the tour, I will be bringing my daughter with me. I think it’s very challenging for anyone to live out of a suitcase, and finding what you need in every city, such as where to do your laundry. It can get irritating, but it’s also exciting to venture into new cities and see what they have to offer. Technically, this isn’t being referred to as a tour. It’s a show that’s been picked up by several different producers along the way. They call it a show with multiple engagements across the country. Sure sounds like a tour to me!”

Allen has a theory as to why the Disney productions based on popular films have such enduring mass appeal.

“I think what people assume is that this is always family friendly fare, and that the values that are being put forth are going to be good, clean, family values,” she says. “However, they’re getting much more than they think they’re getting. A Disney show can be thought provoking in the way it gets a message across. The underlying message of The Little Mermaid is that parents need to listen to their children, and eventually allow them to follow their own path. People also love the music. The score sticks in your head, and there are several iconic songs in this show—that’s the appeal of all of the Disney-based shows.”

Disney’s The Little Mermaid takes the stage Tuesday–Sunday, Aug. 8–13 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday, with 2 p.m. showings Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday matinee performance will be signed and/or audio interpreted upon request. Tickets start at $25. For tickets or more information, please call 937.228.3630 or visit TicketCenterStage.com.

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Tim Smith
Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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