Imagine the challenges an actor would face if he no longer had the use of his voice. It is, after all, an integral part of creating a believable characterization. In the musical theater, few mute characters exist, and in most cases, it’s only a temporary situation. Think of King Sextimus in “Once Upon a Mattress” or the Duke in “Big River.”
Another musical theater character that is rendered temporarily silent is Princess Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” Based on Disney’s 1989 animated motion picture, which in turn was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid” will receive its Lyric Theatre debut this week.
It’s the story of a mermaid who glimpses life above the sea and falls in love with a handsome prince. She makes the sacrifice of giving up her beautiful voice in exchange for becoming human.
Amanda Lea LaVergne, who stars as the title character in Lyric Theatre’s production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” learned early in the rehearsal process that being unable to speak didn’t have to prevent her from creating a believable characterization.
“Actually, I was excited about shutting down my main capacity for communicating and discovering how to express myself,” LaVergne said during a rehearsal break. “By the end of the rehearsal, there was no need for actual words.
“When you see a play and you’re paying attention to the lines, sometime the physicality can get bogged down. So to be able to communicate and be physically funny or restrained is a very welcome challenge. There are so many things you can do without saying a word.”
Every Disney musical has an evil character, and “The Little Mermaid” features Ursula. Playing the devilish underwater creature is Emily Skinner, a New York actress who received a Tony nomination for her role as Daisy Hilton in the Broadway production of “Side Show.”
“Ursula is the villain you love to hate,” Skinner said. “And because she’s a little demented, there’s lots of fun fodder to be mined. I hope I can live up to chewing the scenery. With Ursula, I think that’s the goal.”
Directing Lyric’s production of “The Little Mermaid” is Lyn Cramer, a professor in the School of Musical Theatre at the University of Oklahoma. Assisting her is choreographer Brian J. Marcum. Together, they’re rethinking this Disney property for the stage, with a keen eye on making sure the production appeals to adults as well as children.
“You have to appeal to both,” Cramer said. “The costumes, which were made for this production, are absolutely stunning. I think kids will giggle with glee when they see them. And because the script is so smart, the show will appeal equally to adults.”
The Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid,” which ran for 19 months following a January 2008 opening, put its underwater creatures in footwear that resembled Heelys. The wheels allowed the aquatic characters to glide effortlessly about the stage.
“We’re using body language instead,” Cramer said. “Our costumes are also designed differently. The girls will have fins attached to their fingers like a dancer has a skirt attached for a waltz. We’re also using projections that give the illusion of being under water.
“Jeffrey (Meek, Lyric’s costume designer) and I told the costumers in Kansas City that we wanted to have everyone undulating. The jellyfish, starfish and angelfish costumes are unbelievable.”
Joining LaVergne and Skinner in the Lyric production of “The Little Mermaid” are Storm Lineberger as Prince Eric, Monte Riegel Wheeler as King Triton, Jamard Richardson as Sebastian the crab and Matthew Alvin Brown as Scuttle the seagull. Music direction is by Michael Lavine.
‘The Little Mermaid’