By Marilyn Busch
From the opening notes of the The Little Mermaid’s overture to the ebullient final curtain call, Smithfield High School’s annual musical delivered a joyous and energetic two hours of theater to delighted houses the weekend of March 8-10, 2019. Under the inspired direction of SHS Choral Director Katherine Young, the student production was packed to the gills with local talent – over thirty young performers in the lead roles alone – joined by an ensemble of forty more 8th grade and high school students portraying the play’s singing sailors, sea creatures, maids and more. The addition of an adorable chorus made up of thirty-six local 3rd graders in the two larger musical numbers brought audible “oohs” and “awwws” from the crowd on their first appearance.
Based on the Disney film of the same name, the award-winning show brings to life the popular Menken/Ashman songs from the movie, along with additional musical numbers written for the Broadway show. All of the magical elements of The Little Mermaid came vibrantly to life onstage as the cast performed the beloved story of Ariel (played by senior Emma McKay, 17) the mermaid who is willing to give up her voice (and her fins) in order to pursue true love with handsome Prince Eric (played with confidence by senior Liam Bannon, 17.)
The Little Mermaid marked Bannon’s first time acting in a play and singing in front of an audience. Usually busy playing football and running track with the Sentinels, Bannon says he was lucky that the show’s rehearsal and performance dates fell right in the off season for both. He admitted that it was a leap for him to be in the show. “It takes a lot to actually go out and do it – to say, all right, I am going to commit to do this,” adding with smile, “it’s fully outside of my comfort zone, so, you just have to commit.”
Standing in the way of true-love is Ariel’s father, King Triton (impressively played by heavily bearded and smooth-voiced singer Jonathan Twining, 17.) Twining did a wonderful job of playing the age of the character and commanding the stage while wielding a very impressive light-up “magical” trident.
The drama of the show soon comes courtesy of Ursula, King Triton’s sister and a sea witch who is bound and determined to take down her brother and steal his magic. Tackling the larger than life role of Ursula is Abigail Sayles 18, a senior at SHS. Decked out in a dramatic costume sporting six large octopus tentacles, Sayles commands the stage in the role, delivering dry humor and powerful singing chops as the villainess of the piece. Sayles explained to me that her “sea witch” tentacles where actually made out of large black dryer venting tubes amid layers of black and purple cloth.
Sayles is no stranger to performing on stage, however, this show marked her first lead role in high school – and her first crack at playing the villain. “I was always the “good guy’,” she explained, “and this time I had to really dig deep and change my personality to fit the role of a villain.” Co-star McKay joking added “But that’s something that comes really natural to you,” Sayles continued with a laugh, saying “Getting to bring out the antagonistic side of the show was really fun.”
As the young red-haired mermaid Ariel, McKay fills the role with a graceful maturity and a wonderful, trained singing voice. Like many of her castmates, she has been performing in school musicals since middle school and admits that it has taken a lot of hard work to finally be playing the lead in the show. In addition to the cast practice held four days a week, McKay takes voice lessons by Skype from Phoebe Madden, a well-known vocal coach in Connecticut.
Emma shares the lead role of Ariel with fellow senior Jules Pereira, 17. Pereira and McKay split the performances with Pereira taking to the stage for the Sunday matinee. Pereira, a bubbly brunette with a contagious smile, was a standout in the dance ensemble the night that I saw the show and will perform in the Music Dept.’s Spring Cabaret June 7th at 6:00pm and 8:30pm in the SHS Band Room.
Amid all of the upperclassmen in the spotlight, two younger actors stand out for the sheer size of their talent – and their roles. Jayna Barrette, 15, and Emily Rawlinson 15, are both in their freshmen year – and both do fantastic jobs as comic relief. Barrette plays Flounder, Ariel’s “#1 fan” and perpetual undersea sidekick. A “giant Disney fan”, she started performing as an orphan in Stadium Theatre’s production of Annie when she was in 4th grade. “That was the most amazing thing ever,” she recalls, “I was so excited. . .I immediately just fell in love with theater and everything about it.”
Rawlinson, who plays feathered seagull Scuttle with the timing of an old-school vaudevillian, has some of the funniest lines in the play. Her big number, “Positoovity” is backed up by a chorus of tap-dancing seagulls – and it is a hoot. Barrette says that playing Scuttle has taught her a lot about self-confidence, “Just getting into the character has taught me a lot about myself.”
David Alexander as Ariel’s all-singing all-dancing crustacean guardian Sebastian also does a wonderful job with a demanding singing role – right down to his crab waddle way of walking and his fast-patter delivery of the show’s signature tune “Under the Sea.”
The large ensemble cast works very well together and Young’s staging makes sure that each actor is given their chance to “shine”, whether in a gaggle of catty mermaids, eye-rolling maids or seasick sailors. I would be remiss not to mention Tim Ferron, 16, whose comic turn as Chef Louis, the crazed, knife-wielding Frenchman absolutely brought down the house with his over the top delivery of the show-stopper “Les Poissons.”
One of the things I overheard mentioned by many attendees was how impressed they were not just with the performances, but the sets, costumes and sound quality – and I agree, all were top-notch. I was particularly taken by Paul Duhamel and Kevin Piatek‘s excellent interchangeable set construction pieces that brought the action above and below the water and back wall mural. The beautiful and inspired costume designs by Beth Grant truly lifted the production to a whole new level.
The ten-piece pit band instructed by Kelly Chartier and conducted by Young was impressive to say the least, backed by standout percussionist Christopher Hoskins and pianist Jameson Ward. Kudos also to stage managers Abby Theroux and Ashleigh Moroni on their behind the scenes production “magic” of making sure countless set pieces, costume changes and a hundred cast members all flow on and off stage seamlessly.
Local audiences have come to expect high-quality student productions from the School’s Music Department since Young started staging these large-scale musicals five years ago. If this year’s outstanding production of The Little Mermaid is any indication, there is no doubt in my mind that next year’s will be another “must-see” event.