News Column

'Little Mermaid' stars learn to move through imaginary water

July 7, 2013

YellowBrix

July 07--When the cast of "The Little Mermaid" goes under the sea on stage, special tricks and techniques are necessary to keep it real.

Sebastian the Crab may have legs, but characters like the mermaid Ariel lack feet. They need to swim and float, not walk and run.

And then there's the question of how these denizens of the deep breathe and sing underwater.

Those aren't the only challenges in taking Disney's 1989 animated film to the stage, says Jessica Grove, who plays Ariel in the national touring production of "The Little Mermaid," which begins July 9 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

"I think one of the biggest challenges is living up to the idea of the animated feature. I grew up watching the movie and admiring Ariel," Grove says. "I was a huge fan. I used to pretend to be Ariel in the pool."

The live stage musical that audiences will see here is a co-production of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Papermill Playhouse and Kansas City Starlight Theatre.

Based on the original Hans Christian Anderson tale and Disney's 1989 animated feature film, it features a score with the movie's songs that include "Under the Sea" and "Part of Your World."

It's also a different version of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" than the one that played on Broadway in 2008 and 2009. The script has been revamped and there are additional songs, a new interpretation and new choreography by Glenn Casale as well as a new set and costumes.

The story still focuses on Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton who longs to leave her watery home to seek adventure and romance among humans on dry ground. To achieve her goals, she makes a deal with the sinister octopus Ursula, who has a hidden agenda.

"It's great for the whole family," Grove says. "It focuses on the father-daughter relationship. I think that's really important."

For Grove, the show's biggest technical challenge is the scenes that take place underwater. They often have Ariel going aerial as she moves through her supposedly liquid world.

"Obviously we (actors) are not animated characters but real humans," Grove says.

She had already gone airborne as Dorothy in the Madison Square Garden production of "The Wizard of Oz" and for a short-lived musical project "Angels" that never made it to Broadway.

"But singing while flying was new to me. The costume pushes on my diaphragm. It's a disaster when I eat too much," Grove says. She has learned that moving through the imaginary water looks more realistic if she doesn't remain upright but leans into the harness that supports her in suspension.

Since mermaids have fins, Grove needs to hide her feet.

"We wear jazz flats painted in the color of our skirts so they blend in," she says. "But it has taken a lot of getting used to -- to know how to maneuver the skirts around. ... I figured out how to kick my foot to make (the skirt) swing out. It kind of looks like a fin."

She also discloses a special fishlike feature in her costume that allows the human singer to take big breaths while bringing a subtle bit of reality to her underwater persona.

The onstage Ariel wears a top that's more like a corseted bodice than the film Ariel's bikini bra.

"It's fitted, but it has a stretch panel so you can breathe when you sing. When you breathe it opens up a little -- so it looks like a gill," she says.

Disney on stage

"Aladdin" is the latest Disney animated character heading to Broadway.

Disney Theatrical Group plans to open a new musical based on the 1992 Disney animated film at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre in 2014. The show will feature music by Alan Menken; lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin with a book by Beguelin.

That would make "Aladdin" the seventh Disney movie to make the transition from film to a live production on the Great White Way.

Earlier shows include:

--"Mary Poppins," 1964 film, played 2006-2013 on Broadway

--"The Little Mermaid," 1989 film, played 2007-2009 on Broadway, but with a different script than the current production.

--"Beauty and the Beast," 1991 film, played 1994-2007 on Broadway

--"The Lion King," 1994 film, began 1997, still running on Broadway

--"Newsies The Musical," 1992 film, began running 2012, still running on Broadway

--"Tarzan," 1999 film, played 2006-2007 on Broadway

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