Story: Ariel, youngest of King Triton’s seven daughters, is a mermaid who yearns to know more about the world beyond the sea. She regularly visits the surface in search of human “stuff” which she can add to the collection in her grotto, much to the dismay of her father.

One day she rescues a handsome prince who is thrown overboard during a turbulent storm. She saves him and then disappears, but he remembers her distinctive, beautiful voice. The prince is under pressure from his guardian, Grimsby, to marry before he becomes king, succeeding his late father. Prince Eric, however, finds all the princesses vying to become his wife uninteresting.

While King Triton instructs Ariel’s music tutor, Sebastian, to keep an eye on his wayward daughter, her evil aunt Ursula sends her minions Flotsam and Jetsam to invite Ariel to Ursula's banished chamber. Ursula offers to use her magical powers to transform Ariel into a human for three days, with her voice being kept by Ursula as collateral. If Ariel cannot convince the prince to kiss her by the end of that period, her voice will permanently belong to her conniving aunt.

Can Ariel get the prince to fall in love with her without her voice? Will Triton be able to save her from the snares of his wicked sister? Can Ariel’s friends Flounder the fish and Scuttle the seagull aid her in her quest? Her three-day adventure as a human may well turn perilous before it concludes.

Highlights: Variety Theatre celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend with a first-class presentation of a Disney musical filled with catchy, memorable tunes, colorful characters and a story certain to enchant children of all ages.

From Broadway star Terrence Mann to the children served by Variety who work with their challenges to achieve their dreams, Variety’s cast and crew reached for the stars above the sea under the accomplished guidance of director Lara Teeter.

Other Info: According to publicity, Variety Theatre’s annual production is the only one of its kind in the nation, “featuring an inclusive children’s ensemble performing alongside a professional adult cast.” Each year Variety’s show features children with disabilities in its ensemble as well as other talented kids and professional adult performers.

Variety Theatre was honored earlier this year with the 2018 St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Outstanding Achievement for its body of work since its inception in 2009.  Awards were presented to executive producer Jan Albus and director/choreographer Lara Teeter for their long-term efforts on behalf of Variety Theatre and its mission.

In its news release Variety notes that it is “an inclusive theater program for children with and without disabilities, ages 10 through 21, to learn on-stage and back-stage theater craft from experienced performing arts professionals...The objective of (Variety) is to help children with disabilities achieve their full potential, opening up to them what is possible with the nurturing encouragement of others who share their passion for creative expression and the arts.”

Its production of The Little Mermaid included 26 children with disabilities including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down’s syndrome, autism, brittle bone disease, muscular dystrophy, hearing impairment, blindness and neuro-muscular disorder both on stage and behind the scenes.

Variety also presented The Little Mermaid in 2014, but upped the ante this time with the presence of Broadway star Terrence Mann, the original Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. Mann lent his considerable skills to the role of benevolent undersea King Triton, displaying his booming voice on the early Act I ballad, If Only (King Triton’s Lament).

Mann was surrounded by an accomplished roster of savvy performers, including St. Louis native Berklea Going in the title role. Going previously performed in Variety’s initial effort, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and has graced The Muny’s stage a dozen times, including this summer’s productions of Singin’ in the Rain and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

Going’s beautiful voice soared on such numbers as Part of Your World and Beyond My Wildest Dreams. Her Ariel established an easy rapport with David Bryant Johnson as King Eric, Michael Hawkins as Sebastian and Drew Humphrey as Scuttle.

Humphrey mined the comic gold inherent in the character of the malapropping Scuttle, who never utters a word he can’t distort in funny fashion. Hawkins was a sure crowd-pleaser in the role of the studious Sebastian, whose efforts to musically train Ariel are often set aside with directives from King Triton to reel in his wayward daughter.

Hawkins led the large ensemble on the show’s best-known and biggest number, Under the Sea, the Act I sensation made all the more charming by Teeter’s sweeping choreography which handsomely utilized the expansive Touhill stage. It’s a splashy cascade of colors enhanced by the tune’s Calypso beat and the agreeable performances of all on stage.

Joy Boland tackled the role of villainous Aunt Ursula with flair and a fine sense for underscoring the part’s delicious comic elements, shaping the infectious songs Daddy’s Little Angel and Poor Unfortunate Souls with a fine polish in her octopus garb. She was ably assisted by Brandon Fink and Mason Kelso as her slithering accomplices Flotsam and Jetsam, respectively.

Johnson made for a handsome and high-spirited Prince Eric, who simultaneously respects yet also chafes under the ever-watchful guidance of his guardian Grimsby. Alan Knoll brought wisdom, patience and maturity to the latter part, earnestly working to get Prince Eric hitched to a princess by the kid’s 21st birthday to honor the request of Eric’s late father.

Ariel’s sextet of sisters were engagingly portrayed by Chandler Ford, Larissa White, Corbyn Sprayberry, Dena DiGiacinto, Caitlin Witty and Allison Newman. They were especially entertaining on the ‘60s girl group send-up number, She’s in Love, joined by the ingratiating Ian Nolting as Flounder, the tiny fish with a big crush on Ariel.

Others contributing fine efforts to this quality endeavor were JR Pruski as the pilot, Dustin Crambaugh and Fink as Windward and Leeward and Whit Reichert, Jimmy Capek, Will Bonfiglio, John Katz and Pruski as sailors. John Kinney handled the role of the Prince's French chef with requisite relish.

The Little Mermaid features a book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater and a captivating score by Alan Menken and is based on the familiar Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Variety’s presentation featured accomplished musical direction by Marc Schapman, a handsome hue of colors in costumes designed by Kansas City Costume and a lighting design by Nathan Scheuer which underscored the levity of comic moments as well as flashes of turbulence for storm scenes.

Dunsi Dai’s set included several well-rendered backdrops to emphasize the underworld motif as well as additional designs on stage, and Rusty Wandall’s sound design delivered when needed for scenes highlighted by rolls of thunder or whatnot. Kudos to Flying by Foy for Ariel’s ascents to the surface.

Teeter wisely engaged the services of The Big Muddy Dance Company for several smart numbers featuring troupe dancers Erin Warner Prange, Dawn Gilbertson, Miranda Payne, Crumbaugh and Fink.

Also sharing in the enjoyment were Kids Ensemble members Ellie Baclesse, Isabella Behrle, Julianna Busse, Taylor Gilbert, Tanner Gilbertson, Olivia Kallaos, Sammy Parsons, Ray Pfeil and Lydia Wiley.

Teen Ensemble players included Jenna Balmer, Rachel Bloom, Deanna Brooks, Mollie Carter, Maria Casciola, Holly Connor, Michael Curdt, Aryana Dread, Lacey Fowler, Nick George, Nyla Green, Jane Goldman, Selah Harris, Brian Horton, Gracie Kelley, Peyton LaMartina, Natalie McAtee, Phoebe McFarland, Billy McKenzie, Drew Miller, Sydney Mitchell, Madi Proctor, Lucy Schapman, Zach Sutherland, Katherine Teeter and Thomas Woodrow.

Adult Ensemble players were Audrey Beyersdorfer, Bonfiglio, Capek, Crumbaugh, Cecily Dowd, Eileen Engel, Fink, Hollyn Gayle, Dawn Gilbertson, Katz, Payne, Prange, Pruski, Reichert and Taylor Tveten.

Variety Theatre showcased the skills of these sundry players in six well-attended performances October 18-21 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The number of smiles on the faces of patrons in the audience testified to the presentation’s appealing impact for all.

Musical: The Little Mermaid

Company: Variety Children’s Theatre

Venue: Touhill Performing Arts Center, UMSL

Dates: Run concluded

Photos courtesy of ProPhotoSTL