Under the sea: Area Stage Co. presents Disney’s ‘Little Mermaid’ at the Arsht

As South Florida’s scorching summer rolls on, and even a dip in the ocean leaves us feeling hot hot hot, the Area Stage Co. has devised a refreshing escape.

Following last summer’s acclaim for Area Stage’s Carbonell Award-winning “Beauty and the Beast,” newly named artistic director Giancarlo Rodaz has turned to another beloved Disney title in his ongoing exploration of immersive theater: “The Little Mermaid.”

The imaginative plunge under the sea gets its debut inside the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center this week and runs through Aug. 27.

“I’ve just been enjoying immersive theater as its own medium,” says Rodaz, 27, who has done nearly every job at the company founded by his parents, John Rodaz and Maria Banda-Rodaz, in 1989. “I like mixing things up and breaking all the rules.”

To that end, Rodaz reached out directly to Disney’s head of theatrical licensing, seeking permission to do the version of the script that ran on Broadway from 2007 to 2009. Some changes were made when the show debuted in the Netherlands in 2012, and the second version is the one produced by regional theaters such as Fort Lauderdale’s Slow Burn Theatre Co., which plans to present its own “Little Mermaid” at the Broward Center in December.

Light and airy fabric helps create the magical, mysterious undersea world of Area Stage Co.’s “The Little Mermaid,” getting an immersive treatment at Miami’s Arsht Center. (Giancarlo Rodaz/Courtesy)

After a week of waiting, Rodaz got the go-ahead to produce the original Broadway version, which features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, and a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright.

The animated version of “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 launched a new era in Disney musicals, its success igniting an era dubbed “the Disney Renaissance” with subsequent animated musical hits such as “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Frozen” — well, it’s a long list.

Based on the disturbingly dark 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the Disney movie was written (and made sunnier) by John Musker and Ron Clements (for Broadway, the two got a “based on” credit, along with Andersen), and it won Academy Awards for Menken’s score and the song “Under the Sea.”

The movie’s success led to a prequel, a sequel, a TV series, the Broadway show, numerous productions in countries around the world and cities all over the United States — as well as two celebrity-filled, live-in-concert events at the Hollywood Bowl; a live TV special; and this year’s live action movie starring Halle Bailey as Ariel and Melissa McCarthy as the villainously scheming Ursula. (Not to mention all the books, toys, theme park tie-ins and Halloween costumes.) For more than three decades now, things have gone swimmingly for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Rodaz is thrilled to be exploring and presenting a version of the story he finds to be “so close to the original movie.”

“We are digging into the show as if it’s a brand-new musical,” he says. “We’re getting rid of all the ideas used to portray the mermaids underwater — the costume pieces with tails, the wigs with hair in the air. This is a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story that gets the audience really hooked.”

If you’ve somehow avoided any exposure to “The Little Mermaid,” these are the story’s basics: Ariel (played by Josslyn Shaw) is a spirited, curious teen mermaid and youngest daughter of the undersea ruler King Triton (Frank Montoto). Obsessed with exploring the human world, she encounters the dashing Prince Eric (Henry Thrasher) and saves his life when he’s washed overboard in a storm. Just like Romeo and Juliet, the two fall in love, and the impediments to their romance are many.

Aaron Hagos as Sebastian (center) leads the cast in a scene of "The Little Mermaid."
The cast in a scene of “The Little Mermaid.” (Giancarlo Rodaz/Courtesy)

Neither Ariel nor Eric could survive in the other’s world, unless she could somehow become human. The devious sea witch Ursula (Jonathan Chisolm) offers to transform her for three days, changing her tail into legs but taking away her beautiful voice. As for other details and the resolution? Audiences should experience those firsthand.

To prep his cast for a show requiring most of the actors to navigate an underwater world, Rodaz invited the performers to his family’s home to go swimming as a start to building a vocabulary of movement. Everyone did except for Chisolm, who notes, “I can’t swim.”

The show’s romantic leads are young performers in the early stages of building their post-university careers.

“It’s really cool to be doing the original Broadway script. And who doesn’t want to work in Florida?” says Shaw, who says she loves singing Ariel’s “Part of Your World” most. “Giancarlo gave us time to have a discovery process. Everyone was willing to dive in. He created a safe, fun environment.”

Thrasher has sung Eric’s “Her Voice” for years and says the prince’s expression of love for Ariel often brings him to the verge of tears. He also is moved by the quartet “If Only.”

“I love Alan Menken’s work, and this is one of my favorite scores. It has such a variety of styles. It’s truly gorgeous,” says the actor.

Chisolm, who uses the pronouns they/them, says, “I’m 31, and I have loved the ‘Little Mermaid’ movie for 20 years. Ursula is the one I always respond to. (She was) banished for killing and maiming people. It’s high melodrama and very operatic storytelling.”

In the animated original, Ursula’s look and affect were inspired in large part by Divine, the curvaceous and uncensored character played by Harris Glenn Milstead in famous/infamous John Waters movies. Ursula, Chisolm says, “is definitely a woman. But as a nonbinary and queer person myself, I have a strong sense of obligation to the way I play her.”

At 27, Giancarlo Rodaz is the second artistic director at Area Stage Co. His mother says he has been preparing for the role “his whole life.” (Morgan Sophia Photography/Courtesy)

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” will be Rodaz’s first as Area Stage’s second artistic director.

“I feel so proud to see the company continue under Giancarlo’s stewardship. He has been preparing for the role all his life,” says Banda-Rodaz, who is creating the “Little Mermaid” costumes along with Sofia Ortega. “Productions like ‘Annie’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ gave John the impetus to hand over the position, and we cannot wait to see what new artistic challenges Giancarlo will conquer.”

Founding artistic director John Rodaz says of his son, “Giancarlo has been steeped in the world of performing arts since he was a child, and his journey has been nothing short of remarkable. From his early days performing on our stage to working behind the scenes and eventually directing his own productions, his commitment to artistic excellence and storytelling has shone through. I have watched him grow as an artist and a leader, and I have faith in his ability to take Area Stage Co. to even greater heights.”

If you go

WHAT: Area Stage Co. production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”

WHEN: Through Aug. 27

WHERE: Carnival Studio Theater at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

COST: $84-$110

INFORMATION: 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. 

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