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‘Little Mermaid’ revisited

Show based on original fairy tale, not Disney

By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / April 11, 2010

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The Little Mermaid that Andrea Ross grew up with will be familiar to most modern girls: She has red hair, pals around with a crab named Sebastian, and is named Ariel. But that’s not the Little Mermaid Ross will be playing when she returns to the Wheelock Family Theatre stage this week.

Wheelock’s version of “The Little Mermaid’’ features a blonde named Pearl, with nary a singing crab in sight. Playwright Linda Daugherty based it not on the ubiquitous Disney animated musical, but on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that Disney used, too.

And it’s a play, not a musical, though Wheelock artistic director Jane Staab has written a song for Ross — a sensible thing to do, since this teenager has already headlined a national tour of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Whistle Down the Wind.’’ The play, like the original story, is also more shaded than the Disney one.

“I feel it has more extremes to it,’’ says Ross. “And in the darker parts, it’s much darker than the Disney version.’’

That suits her fine. “Obviously I loved the Disney version,’’ she says, “but actually when I was really young I had a children’s edition of Hans Christian Andersen,’’ and some of the darker details from that telling would stay with her. “I used to tell my friends, See the seafoam? That’s because mermaids died. People always looked at me like, That’s a little morbid.’’

Parents need not fear, though. They won’t have to explain any dead mermaids to their children at Wheelock. While the ending isn’t as sunny as a cartoon, it’s also not as grim as old Hans, who sent the Little Mermaid off to die of grief.

“We don’t want any little kids crying,’’ Ross says. “But there’s still the sort of bittersweet feeling — she is leaving her family and her world below.’’

The 19-year-old can connect with that emotion, because she’ll be leaving her Franklin home this fall (after taking a year off between Noble and Greenough School and college) to study musical theater at New York’s Pace University. And James P. Byrne, who’s directing and designing this “Little Mermaid,’’ says it’s the show’s edge of darkness that makes it more dramatic, and therefore more appealing to him.

“It’s very dramatic, with life-and-death situations right off the bat,’’ Byrne says. “There’s evil in this play — not just bad, but evil,’’ in the form of the Sea Witch, who helps the lovestruck mermaid assume human form, but at a terrible price. “This woman wants to destroy her, not just kill her. She wants her to feel pain.’’

But Byrne is also finding ways to have fun with the show, which he previously staged at the Harwich Junior Theatre on Cape Cod. He’s importing sound designer J. Hagenbuckle’s “soundscape,’’ with original music, from that production. Because the Wheelock stage is much larger than Harwich’s, though, the set design — along with some eel and fish puppets — is new.

“The hard part is how to make them swim without flying everything in,’’ Byrne says, contemplating the underwater world he’s creating onstage. “So I came up with a lot of stairs that move around.’’ The wheeled staircases allow the assorted sea creatures to sit, stand, and move at different levels, creating a feeling of floating in water.

On the day he’s showing off the handsome blue-and-green set, some large panels of sheer fabric have just arrived. They’ll billow and sway in various ways around the stage — “We’re still playing with exactly where they’re going,’’ Byrne says — to create a fluid, aquatic mood for the underwater scenes. When Pearl moves up to the world above, the fabric will be rearranged to fall in straight lines, like columns or walls.

As for the tail she’ll have to lose in order to pursue her prince, Ross says, “at the moment it’s just a piece of sheet — we have rehearsal tails!’’ But she’s seen the finished costume, with large fabric scales in an iridescent pearly-white hue, and pronounces it beautiful.

“I’m always amazed by Jim’s shows — especially the visuals,’’ Ross says. But despite their shared history with Wheelock — she started in “Tuck Everlasting’’ and was most recently seen in “Saint Joan,’’ while he’s directed a score of shows there — she’s never been in one of his shows until now. That makes it a particular pleasure, she says, to return to a theater that “always feels like home.’’

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

THE LITTLE MERMAID

Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, April 16-May 16. Tickets: $15-$25. 617-879-2300, www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org