“It’s so clear, can’t you hear, I’m the ONE,” careens a soprano into the upper reaches of the atmosphere at a Burns Park Players rehearsal for their upcoming production of The Little Mermaid. As cast members in this large ensemble scene ramble across the stage at Tappan Middle School, choreographer (and U-M student) Natalie Kastner coaches them to think about their characters’ backstories: “You know Game of Thrones? Everyone has their position in society.”
Though based on the 1989 Disney film about the mermaid Ariel who falls in love with a human prince, the stage version reverberates in a more feminist fashion. Ursula the Sea Witch and King Triton are portrayed as equals, and Ariel takes a more active role in escaping from Ursula. Because the Burns Park Players cast a woman as Ariel’s sidekick Flounder, executive producer Shoshana Hurand likes to note that their production passes the Bechdel test: two women characters talk to each other about something other than a man. The play also includes many more songs than the film, celebrating “The World Above” as well as the world “Under the Sea.”
A treasure of the neighborhood, the Players bring together neighbors, parents, teachers, staff, and children of Burns Park Elementary. Formed in 1984, the group stages one family-oriented musical theater production each year to support the arts in the schools. Although the main cast and crew are all adults, productions have featured as many as sixty children. Some later come back as adults, including Jordan McKay, this year’s accompanist, and Lizzie Randolph, who plays Ariel.
This year’s director is James Harbaugh, Jr.–yes, that Harbaugh. A senior at the U-M School of Music, Theatre, & Dance, he’s working on his BFA in directing. “I decided to come here [for school], and coincidentally, my dad decided to come here, too,” says the son of the U-M football coach. “I was trying to get away from home, and home came to me.”
When Ursula, played by Carly Groves, comes on stage, Harbaugh reminds the cast, “Obviously when she comes in, she’s a big freaking scary octopus. I want to see scared.” Then he has a sudden brainstorm. As royal advisor Grimsby (John Pottow) entreats Prince Eric (Tim Ziegler) to choose one of the singing princesses to be his bride, Harbaugh quickly rearranges the tableau to highlight and celebrate Fredda Clisham, a beloved member of the ensemble who is ninety-nine years old and in her twelfth production. The cast bursts into applause.
The Burns Park Players perform The Little Mermaid February 1, 2, 8, and 9.