There’s a reason Disney musicals have been around for a long time. As children, the films made us laugh and cry. As adults, they taught us about hope and the importance of believing in ourselves. Now, we have another chance to experience Disney magic live!
SLAMS Theatre Company presents The Little Mermaid, the stage musical adaptation of the classic animated Disney film, released in 1989. The story, based on the much darker fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, follows Ariel, a mermaid with a beautiful singing voice who dreas of a life beyond the sea. With original music and lyrics by Alan Menken & Howard Ashman (and later, additional lyrics by Glenn Slater), The Little Mermaid won hearts on Broadway in 2008.
Theatre People caught up with the show’s director, Brenton Van Vliet, who took upon the challenge of creating a show that felt familiar to audiences. “Tackling such a well-known show is a daunting task,” he says, “Some people will come and watch it expecting to see the movie on stage, while others may come in expecting it to be like the Broadway version. It can be hard to live up to the expectations that people will have, but I believe that we have captured the essence of the movie and people will love what we have created.”
Vliet is certainly no stranger to theatre, having previously worked with SLAMS in the set design and lighting departments. He also played the lead role of Emmett Forrest in SLAMS’ Legally Blonde The Musical in 2015. Now, though he’s the director, he still enjoys working behind the scenes. We spoke to him about the demanding nature of working on The Little Mermaid. “The biggest challenge for me has just been the scale of the show. Going into this I knew that Disney means big, but it’s not until you actually start to break the show down and look at it from all aspects that you realise how big and detailed it is. I have also designed the sets, costumes, puppets and special effects for the show, so that on top of directing the show has been a huge challenge.”
The Little Mermaid is the largest production Vliet has worked on to date, the last being The Wizard Of Oz with Players Theatre Company. Thankfully, both productions had concepts allowing for creative freedom. “Wizard was a fun challenge in that our performance venue had its own little design quirks, [which] meant when blocking the show we had to be very aware of these things and had to be creative to find ways around them”, he reflects. “[On The Little Mermaid] It’s been great to move into a larger theatre, we have been able to fill the stage with amazing costumes, sets and choreography.”
The stage musical itself is renowned for its use of puppetry, extravagant costumes and a majority of the cast on skates. It’s certainly not an easy feat, but something to consider throughout the audition process. “We were looking for people who came into the room and impressed us off the bat,” Vliet says. “My interpretation of the show not only calls for actors who could sing, dance and act, but also [for some roles] do so whilst skating or puppeteering.”
In the coveted role of Ariel is Brooke Young, to whom we spoke about the opportunity to play such an iconic character. “I think the biggest challenge for me is being able to show my own acting style and emotion”, she says. “I wanted to try and show the classic (film) Ariel, as well as looking at Sierra Boggess’ (Ariel on Broadway) performance. As Ariel is a Disney princess and well-known, especially to young children, I want to be able to portray that same character that everyone has grown to know and love”, she adds. “I think that’s what I feel as the most pressure to achieve.”
When asked about her favourite moment of the show, Young mentions the song ‘If Only’, which takes place in the second act. “It’s a quartet that is sung by Ariel, Prince Eris, Sebastian and King Triton and I love everything about this song,” she says. “It is full of emotion, love, passion and when everyone sings together it sounds absolutely magical! I believe there may even be a tear or two shed by the audience.”
Vliet is particularly excited for us to see Sebastian, the beloved wise crab who serves as Ariel’s mentor. “I think that Ryan Purdy as Sebastian will have the audience in stitches with all of Sebastian’s witty dialogue and off hand comments. With Ryan being one of the lead puppeteers in the show, he constantly amazes the prod team in his ability to portray so much emotion and character through the puppet.”
The key to pulling off a large-scale production on a small-scale lies in gratitude, Vliet observes, as he has learned to embrace everything that comes with amateur theatre. “You should appreciate any assistance that you are offered”, he says. “People come along and do this out of their love for theatre and it’s never too late to stop and say thank you to those that do come along and help. Unlike professional theatre, we don’t have six figure budgets for our shows, but with the help of everyone in the theatre community we are able to pull off things that always look amazing and entertain audiences.”
Young attributes her enjoyment of working on The Little Mermaid to the people behind the scenes. In fact, she was also a cast member of SLAMS’ Legally Blonde The Musical, an experience that inspired her to work with SLAMS once more. “I know that if I am feeling overwhelmed, if I am struggling I can always go to the people on the production team. They are always so positive and willing to help in any situation.” Vliet also speaks highly of his team, namely Phill Scanlon, Colin Hartley, Penn Valk and Joel Batalha. “[They] have provided me with so much support and assistance on top of their normal roles in getting the show up and running”, he says.
If you’re new to Disney, be prepared, as the show will have you “laughing, crying and dancing along in your seat,” according to Vliet. “[The show] will draw you in and have you feel for Ariel as she pursues her desire to live up on land.”
The Little Mermaid, a story about pursuing one’s passion and fighting obstacles along the way, is very much one Young can relate to. “Something [that] has been said to me a few times is, ‘you won’t know until you try’”, she says when asked about the best advice she’s received. “If you never try you won’t know how far you could go. If you really strive for something there’s no reason why you can’t achieve it. No one is perfect and you will make mistakes along the way, but you use it as a learning curve and move on.”
Sound advice from our favourite mermaid. Make sure to catch the show from the 11th of March!
SLAMS Theatre Company’s The Little Mermaid is playing at The Alan Ross Centre, Billanook College, from March 11th – 19th. More info at: http://www.slams.org.au/shows/the-little-mermaid/