A Saturday matinee at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and the pre-show flurry are pretty much what you’d expect – only better. Kids galore sauntering or scampering down aisles, upstairs and around corners with mom and/or dad in tow. Giggling, gazing, and in the case of more than one dressed-to-impress young lady, glittering (sparkly shoes and tulle still rule). All the while, good-natured ushers sidestep shopping bags and happy feet to deliver massive seat cushions to the wee-est of the wee.
The girls are particularly primed, of course, knowing that they’re only minutes from seeing their red-haired idol, Princess Ariel (Chelsea Morgan Stock), “swim” across the stage in all her mermaid splendor. But then everyone in the audience is psyched and totally ready to dive headfirst into The Little Mermaid, Disney’s most recent Broadway hit.
Actual cheers as the lights go down and the overture begins; gasps as the curtain rises on a moving ship bearing sailors and handsome Prince Eric (Drew Seeley), who will shortly find himself head-over-tail in love with Ariel.
But these days, Eric isn’t the only Prince in the house. As of April 7, Tony-winner Faith Prince took over the role of the divinely evil sea witch Ursula, out for (what else?) revenge and absolute power over every fish in the sea.
“I was doing a play in Philadelphia when my agent told me they were looking for a new Ursula and suggested I take a look at it,” says Prince. “And I’m so glad I did because it turns out the character is delicious – Cruella De Vil mixed with Judy Dench!”
Prince’s enthusiasm is by no means one-sided. “We are beyond thrilled,” said producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions, Thomas Shumacher, shortly after the actor signed on. “She is that glorious creature — a leading lady in the great Broadway tradition and we think a perfect match for the role of Ursula, one of Disney's most uproarious villains.”
After catching what Prince refers to as her “bi-polar, good-girl-gone-bad” persona come to multi-tentacled life before hundreds of eager young eyes, I have to say, oh my yes! And, clearly, she is enjoying every second she spends onstage – despite the rather tricky learning curve required to master both the logistics of the “pod” on which she arrives, and especially her over-the-top, frequently shape-shifting costume.
“It’s very heavy due to all its components. In fact they prefaced my taking on the role with warnings about the tentacles, which really do have a mind of their own. But in the end, it’s no more challenging than it is multitasking as actress and a mother,” she says in reference to her 14-year-old son, Henry, who reviewed her performance as, “Pretty cool, Mom.”
Nevertheless, during Prince’s first few performances the potential for costume or scenery catastrophes were never far from her mind. She credits the two actors who pay the Eels – Tyler Maynard (Flotsam) and Eric LaJuan Summers (Jetsam) – with helping her circumnavigate the hidden hazards of the pseudo-deep.
“They are really good at looking out for me,” she says, going on to point out that the whole Little Mermaid team, onstage and off, were terrific on every level. “And since the show’s been going on for almost a year and a half, I moved into a well-oiled machine.”
A gifted comedienne of the first tier, Prince has extensive Broadway credits that speak for themselves – a list that includes last season’s A Catered Affair, as well as Noises Off, Bells Are Ringing, James Joyce's The Dead, Little Me, The King and I, and her unforgettable Tony-winning turn as Miss Adelaide in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. But, she admits, it was a couple of guest spots on TV playing murderous wives (Remington Steele, Monk) that honed the “baddie” gene she tapped into for Ursula.
“You can’t play all evil – there are shadings and you need to understand the nuances,” she observes, adding that much of the fun of playing Ursula comes from the malleable structure of the show. “She’s got some delicious lines, and because she is a very colorful character, I can deliver them in a variety of ways. As a result, I’m constantly surprising the cast.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with the musical’s storyline, the action takes place in a mythical underwater kingdom and centers around Ariel, a teenage mermaid obsessed with the world above – who just happens to be the youngest daughter of Triton, the King of the Sea (Norm Lewis). Ursula is Triton’s banished sister who feigns kindness to Ariel while plotting to undermine not only her brother, but everything her niece desires: to be human and to marry the handsome prince she once saved from a shipwreck.
Naturally, this being Disney – and spun off from the acclaimed animated film that debuted in 1989 (inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen classic) – the show overflows with appealing secondary characters like young Flounder (Trevor Braun at the performance I attended), Sebastian the worry-wart Crab (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.), and Scuttle, the hyper-loony head seagull (Eddie Korbich).
“I think Disney really understands how important it is to show young audiences all sides of the story – including the darkness, which in this case includes me,” continues Prince. “It prepares children for what to expect later on in life. So even though Ursula is funny, there are points where you know she’s serious and means business.”
Still, when the curtain call rolls around, Ursula gets a huge round of applause from the kids. Obviously, even if they were a little scared during the show, they know talent – and a nice person – even when she’s got eight arms, surreal makeup, and a deliciously maniacal laugh.
The Little Mermaid: Trivia, Observations, and Fun Facts
• Drew Seeley, the newest member of The Little Mermaid cast (since June 9) is known to fans as pop star Joey Parker in the romantic musical comedy, Another Cinderella Story, playing opposite Selena Gomez. An Emmy Award-nominated singer/songwriter, he co-wrote the international smash hit song “Get’cha Head in the Game” for the multi-platinum High School Musical soundtrack.
• Ariel as well as most of her friends and family “float” around their oceanic world on skates adapted from Heely’s, the sneakers with wheels that hit streets and playgrounds in 2000.
• Before the show and during intermission, vendors walk through the aisles with some of the more popular items, a far larger selection being available at the gift counter. (Note: the Lunt-Fontanne is the only place you can purchase most Mermaid memorabilia and toys.) The hottest sellers? Souvenir programs, Ariel dolls, and CDs. Plus, special bargains are available, such as a seashell purse (only $10 with another purchase) and the coveted Dinglehopper for a mere $12 (my lips are sealed; you’ll have to see the show!).
• Several original Broadway cast members are still with the show, including those playing King Triton, Scuttle, and Grimsby (Prince Eric’s friend and advisor portrayed by Broadway vet Jonathan Freedman).
• Seconds into the intermission, a young audience member nearby whipped out her cell phone and told the person on the other end re: Ursula, “She’s so mean – she took Ariel’s voice away.” And then felt obligated to add, “It’s not done yet. The curtain came down so people could go to the bathroom.”