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EMU Theatre breathes new life into classic ‘Little Mermaid’ tale

EMU Theatre presents a fresh twist on a classic tale in the musical theatre production of “The Little Mermaid” on Friday, April 5 and Sunday, April 7 @ 7 p.m.; Saturday, April 6 and Sunday, April 14 @ 2 p.m.; and from Thursday-Saturday, April 11-13 @ 7 p.m. in EMU’s MainStage Theater.

Based on Disney’s beloved 1989 animated classic, the stage musical premiered on Broadway in 2008. Ariel, a young mermaid princess played by senior Afton Rhodes-Lehman, dreams of the world above the sea and falls in love with a human, Prince Eric — played by senior Thaddeus Jackson — much to the dismay of her father, King Triton. She makes a deal with Ursula, a half-octopus sea witch played by EMU alum Holly Hanks Wanta, and gives up her voice in exchange for a chance to become human and win Prince Eric’s heart. But, she only has three days to find true love; if she fails in her quest, her soul will belong to Ursula.

EMU senior Afton Rhodes-Lehman as Ariel in EMU’s “The Little Mermaid.”

“It’s been an exciting new world to dive into,” said Rhodes-Lehman, who grew up wearing Ariel-themed bracelets and sketching pictures of the Disney princess in her notebooks. “I feel like every kid grows up with that one movie idol and for me it was Ariel. Although, this version of Ariel is deeper and more fleshed-out than the one in the movies.”

The show is directed and produced by EMU Theatre Program Director Justin Poole with music direction from EMU faculty member Kyle Remnant and longtime collaborators Angie Clemens and Jim Clemens. It features a multigenerational cast and crew ranging in age from elementary through high school, as well as EMU students, staff, alumni and community members. Rounding out the artistic staff are EMU student Thomas Erickson (light operator), EMU faculty/staff members Shannon Dove (tech director) and Rachel Herrick (costume designer), EMU alums Jareya Harder ’22 (stage manager) and Robert Weaver ’18 (lighting designer), guest sound technician Tom Carr and resident choreographer Ellie de Waal.

The show features crowd-pleasing hits such as “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and a number of new songs only found in the musical.

“It’s an immersive experience with a Broadway score that has a gravitas and beauty that surpasses what you find in both film adaptations,” said Poole, adding that there is plenty of interaction between the audience and cast. “It truly feels like a big Broadway production in terms of the musical and dance numbers.”

A painted backdrop behind the stage allows for cutouts and puppets to add another dimension to the story. The show opens with a group of children in front of the backdrop playing out scenes from “The Little Mermaid” with character puppets. As the overture music swells, the play comes to life on a stage that is transformed into an underwater world featuring sea creatures and three-fourths of the set made from recycled materials and found objects.

EMU seniors Hannah Landis, left, and Thaddeus Jackson during a rehearsal of EMU’s “The Little Mermaid.”

A treasure chest doubles as a sailing ship gliding across the stage on wheels. An assortment of umbrellas, rakes and beach balls piece together to form a giant fish during a rendition of “Under the Sea.” When Ariel is saving Prince Eric from his shipwreck, an enormous piece of white fabric combined with strobe lights faithfully recreates the effects of a thunderstorm at sea.

“We’re putting on a massive, elaborate spectacle on a shoestring budget,” said Poole. “That’s the magic of it.”

The musical is geared toward all ages, with singing along from the audience encouraged.

Ariel | Afton Rhodes-Lehman
Prince Eric | Thaddeus Jackson
Ursula | Holly Hanks Wanta 
Sebastian | Adam Hoover
Flounder | Reah Clymer 
King Triton | Joe Seitz
Scuttle/Chef Louis | Hannah Landis
Grimsby | Melody Wilson
Pilot | Shannon Dove
Aquata/Jetsam/Gull | Ellie Hoover
Andrina | Kay Pettus
Arista | Saycia Szakonyi
Attina/Gull | Katie-Beth Warner
Adella/Flotsam/Gull | Anna Hoover 
Allana | Alexis Lewis
Windward | Vienna Poole
Leeward | Felicity Poole