As South Florida's scorching summer rolls on and even a dip in the ocean leaves us feeling hot hot hot, Miami's Area Stage Company 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 debut inside the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, August 9. It runs through Sunday, August 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 Company, which will present its Little Mermaid at the Broward Center beginning Friday, December 15 and running through December.
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.
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 Oscars for Menken's score and the song "Under the Sea."
The movie's success led to a prequel, a sequel, a television series, the Broadway show, numerous productions in countries around the world and cities all over the United States, two celebrity-filled, live-in-concert events at the Hollywood Bowl, a live television 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 with an actress playing Ariel, Mermaid merchandise, 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 "so close to the original movie."
"We are digging into the show as if it's a brand-new musical," he adds. That has carried over into rehearsals. "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."
Ariel (played in the Area production 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 above, 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.
The impediments to their romance are many. King Triton loathes humans. Neither Ariel nor Eric could survive in the other's world — unless she could somehow become human, which she's determined to do. 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, holding it in a magical nautilus shell, and leaving Ariel mute. As for details and the resolution? Audiences should experience those firsthand.
"Every Disney protagonist feels like a dreamer," says Rodaz. "Everyone feels like an outsider, misunderstood, not seen in a way. That's the magic that's inherent in Disney."
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.
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, a 2018 theater winner in the Miami-based National YoungArts Foundation competition, 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 is also moved by the "If Only" quartet sung by Ariel, Triton, Eric, and Ariel's protector/sidekick Sebastian (Aaron Hagos).
"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 largely inspired by Divine, the curvy and uncensored character played by Harris Glenn Milstead in famous/infamous John Waters movies. Ursula, Chisolm says, "is definitely a woman. But as a non-binary and queer person myself, I have a strong sense of obligation to the way I play her."
"It's surreal to take a story everyone knows and do it a new way," says Hagos.
Adds Montoto of his frequent director: "He always provides new challenges...He loves to bounce ideas off everybody."
Disney's the Little Mermaid will be Rodaz's first as Area Stage's second artistic director. Banda-Rodaz estimates the production's cost as "in the neighborhood of $400,000." Creating theater at the Arsht Center is always costlier than producing at the company's space in South Miami's Shops at Sunset Place, home to Area Stage's extensive conservatory program.
"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."
Giancarlo Rodaz — called "John-John" by close friends, colleagues, and family — remembers his journey vividly.
"I started by sweeping the theater and cleaning up after shows. It's been inch by inch, moving forward," he says. "When my dad started Area Stage, the focus was on Harold Pinter and David Mamet and so on. When we moved to Riviera Plaza (the site has become the future home of a two-story Publix on South Dixie Highway across from the University of Miami), we switched the focus to education. Now I want to find equilibrium between the mainstage and conservatory programs, so they can feed off each other."
Following the Little Mermaid, Rodaz plans to produce an immersive version of the Addams Family Musical in the Arsht's Carnival Studio Theater February 7-25. And though he's in charge, he's glad his parents aren't going anywhere.
"I'm lucky to have them around, guiding and advising me," he says.
– Christine Dolen, ArtburstMiami.com
Disney's the Little Mermaid. Wednesday, August 9 through Sunday, August 27, at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $31 to $110.