Hang on to your fins, Chillicothe…your high school theater department has done it again. After taking you to Broadway in the 50s, New York City in the 20s, The Land of Oz, Harvard University, the World of Dr. Seuss, and even Rydell High from Grease, the cast and crew of Chillicothe High School’s new show plans to take you on a fantastic adventure ‘under the sea’. Yes folks, count CHS as one of the latest schools to take on the bombastic stage version of Disney’s classic The Little Mermaid. However, they hope that their interpretation will surprise you as much as it reminds you of the film you know and love.
Managing the chaos of land and sea is the dynamic duo of Geoffrey Smith and Mala Kennard, who previously directed Guys and Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Grease. When asked “why Disney?” Smith had a matter-of-fact reply. “It just seemed like the right time.” Seven years have passed since CHS performed a Disney show, 2009’s High School Musical, and ten years had gone by since their last Disney fairy tale, 2009’s Beauty and the Beast. However, since so much time had passed and given that the music department is once again taking a trip to Disney World in June, the time seemed right to reenter that fairy tale world. It was not without challenges, however. “Disney musicals are hard,” says Smith, “They’re often in exotic places and based upon stories that have animals or creatures as protagonists, so they are difficult to costume and build sets for.” Nevertheless, Smith goes on to say that this year’s cast and crew have really come together to create something that not only looks great, but also sounds great.
Mala Kennard, the music director and choreographer for the production, echoes Smith’s sentiments but also adds that “the music is hard. Even harder than I thought before we started.” The cast even had to be told to stop listening to the Broadway cast album for the show because many key signatures and arrangements differed from their Broadway counterparts and, “we didn’t want them to learn it wrong,” according to Kennard. Orchestra director Luke Furniss, who is directing the CHS orchestra in a musical for the first time, agrees with Kennard’s sentiment and started rehearsing the score in February to ensure that the orchestrations would be at a professional caliber by opening night. “It’s caused some headaches,” said Smith, “But when you’re here in the rehearsal space and seeing what these kids are producing, you just know it’s going to be special.”
The cast of The Little Mermaid is indeed special and one which Kennard and Smith agonized over during the audition process because, according to Smith, “every student showed up with their A-game and really made us think about where they should be placed to make the show as strong as possible.” Leading the cast is Kachina McKnight, a junior, who will be playing the titular mermaid, Ariel. McKnight is no stranger to CHS productions, having appeared in the casts of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Guys and Dolls in small speaking roles. However, this year would be the first time that she had taken on the challenges of a lead role. When asked how she felt about appearing as a character who is so recognized from the Disney Princess line up, she replied “It was really exciting and Ariel has definitely been my favorite character that I've ever played.” McKnight also elaborated on the stress involved, saying that, “I feel like I almost have a standard held over my head that I'm expected to meet based off of the original Ariel. However, that's not exactly the Ariel that I'm supposed to portray or be for that matter. I've made this Ariel my own and I personally think she's more fun to play than what I imagine the original Ariel would be.” Smith went on to say that, “Kachina had a vocal quality and an acting quality that embodied the wonderment that Ariel should have over everything in the human world. It was a wide-eyed innocence that just spoke to us on a profound level during the casting process and we knew that she would be perfect for the part.”
Chemistry was also an aspect which was scrutinized in deciding who should play Prince Eric opposite McKnight. In the end, the most natural choice was Jaxon Newsome, a senior, who happens to be the actual significant other of McKnight. “This may sound cliche but the most fun I've had so far is the scene 'One Step Closer" where I get to sing and dance with [Kachina],” he says, “Being able to showcase my love for her and dancing with her is so fun.” Newsome also acknowledges that the relationship between himself and his leading lady has led to a few unintentionally funny moments. “Another part of why I have the most fun during [One Step Closer] is the irony behind my character teaching her character how to dance.” He goes on to say, “the only dance background I have is 2 years of Cavalites; while she has had upwards of 12 years of dance experience. So she is almost teaching me how to teach her how to dance.” Newsome is also a leader in the choral groups which assured Smith and Kennard that he could be commanding as well as sensitive. “What was amazing about Jaxon is that he didn’t even audition for Eric,” said Smith, “At callbacks we needed someone to read for Eric so we could read another girl for Ariel, and he gave such a fantastic reading that we decided to sing him on Eric’s song. He blew us away.” Newsome had originally auditioned for Sebastian, Ariel’s crab friend, a part which eventually went to Keenah Copley-McKnight, a freshman, who “gave one of the best cold readings we’d ever seen from a newcomer to theater,” according to Kennard.
Rounding out the cast of protagonists are Joey White as Flounder, Ariel’s lovable fish friend; Dylan Magill as King Triton, Ariel’s father; and Patrick Corbin as Scuttle, the know-it-all seagull who enlightens Ariel on human stuff. Speaking of Magill, Smith says, “He’s such a big kid with a big voice. So it wasn’t surprising that he could pull off the parts of the character which needed to feel imposing. But he is also one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever known, which showed me that he could also show Triton’s soft side.” Corbin, on the other hand, seems tailor-made for Scuttle. “He didn’t audition for Scuttle at first; but we had him read anyway just to get an idea of what he could do,” says Kennard, “and when he spoke, he’d already given Scuttle a voice and a set of mannerisms. Only natural born comedians can do that, and that’s what we needed in the part.” White, who had previously appeared as a romantic lead in Guys and Dolls, had a new challenge as the young Flounder. “We needed someone that could look at Ariel with puppy-dog eyes and melt our audience’s heart,” said Smith, “And when Joey read for Flounder, every girl in the room would go ‘awwwwwwwwww’ at everything he did.”
Noble and upstanding characters are important in a fairy tale, but everyone knows that a story like this lives or dies in its villain, especially when she is considered one of the top 10 Disney villains. That’s why Smith and Kennard have entrusted the role of Ursula the sea witch to senior Willow Dove. Dove recently appeared as Helen Cooper in Night of the Living Dead and had appeared in smaller roles in both Thoroughly Modern Millie and Guys and Dolls, making this her first featured lead role in a musical at CHS. “She knows how difficult this role is,” said Smith, “and part of that difficulty is because it’s the role that Mala and I both would die to play.” Dove elaborates on the role when she says, “Playing a well-known character is hard because I know that the audience will have expectations and I want to make sure I don't let anyone down.” She also shows how her Ursula is different from what people expect because, “I'd like to think I'm not an inherently mean person, so it's somewhat hard to identify with Ursula's evil. The best way for me to relate to her is to think about her motives. She never felt appreciated by her family which caused her to act out, and I think at some point everyone has felt undervalued, so I just try to draw from my experiences of feeling inadequate and use that to drive my performance.”
“It’s interesting that Kachina and Willow both had similar paths to their roles in this show,” says Smith, “because in many ways their characters in the show are similar. Both were misunderstood by their fathers and just wanted love and understanding and both ended up going to extremes to make themselves heard. It’s a symmetry that just works.”
Other cast members include Curtis Dickess as Grimsby; Annika Carroll as Flotsam; Kaylyn Hurles as Jetsamp; and Zoie Robinson, Savana Goshorn, Brooklyn Watts, Annemarie Brier, Emily Schafer, and Jaylenn Smith as the mersisters: Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Atina, Adella, and Allana. The cast doesn’t end there, as several more actors appear in various roles and chorus positions throughout the production. “If you thought last year’s cast was big,” says Smith, “you’ll be shocked at the 45 we put on stage for Under the Sea. I expect our audience to cheer for a good two minutes once the song ends.” Bigger, in this case, is better. The Little Mermaid carries a "G" rating and will be performed at 7pm on May 13th and 14th in the CHS/CMS Auditorium. This is one the whole family can enjoy, so feel free to bring everyone you can. Don’t be a ‘poor unfortunate soul’ and miss out.
Tickets can be purchased in advance (ONLINE), during the 11:20am-1pm lunch period, and at the door, beginning at 6pm, both nights of the show. Ticket prices are $8.45 for adults and $5.45 for students, children, and senior citizens.