Norfolk Academy celebrated the return of the Winter Musical after a pandemic hiatus with a magical, exuberant performance of Disney's The Little Mermaid, a production that involved almost 100 students and theatrical innovations.
Even though rehearsals were challenging, as actors experimented with a variety of masks, the anticipation of a live audience kept the energy high, said Drama Teacher Caroline Bisi, who directed the show. Last year, she directed “It's a Wonderful Life" as a radio play with audio only. From the first preview of Disney's The Little Mermaid, there was “a sense of relief, because it was what the kids wanted," she said. “They needed that audience connection so much!"
The show featured 16 seniors, many of whom had been in multiple musicals before. Avery Britt '22, a veteran of five musicals, starred as the evil witch, Ursula, and her performance gave that character a combination of glamour and saucy wit that had audiences laughing even as they shivered. Her costume, a sweeping ball gown with draping octopus tentacles, added to her dark allure.
“I absolutely loved playing Ursula, but playing a villain (specifically a purple one) is not too foreign to me. I played sour kangaroo in Suessical, so getting to return to my 'evil roots' so to speak was an amazing experience," Avery said. “It’s always fun to play a villain in any show—getting to be a brand of character whose backstory never fails to be rich and layered creates such a fun environment for the actor who’s lucky enough to nab those parts, and Ursula herself is such an iconic character in the Disney pantheon."
Avery noted that many of the seniors in the drama program had been hoping to do that specific show as their finale, and they were stunned when that dream came true, especially after the Covid year of myriad challenges for theater. “Going into the announcement for the show, the senior class specifically had been hoping for The Little Mermaid as our last show and to get the chance to do it was shocking and fantastic," she said. “The show is much more than it seems to be on its surface. It has such a wonderful message that goes beyond just the fun, upbeat Disney tone (which is, of course, amazing too). It speaks to the core pursuit of humans (or merfolk) and their search for a true identity and the journey that comes with finding a home among people who may at first have been foreign to you."
Avery said she plans to continue performing in college and community theater, and that is true as well for a less-seasoned but equally passionate performer, Kadyn Johnson-Smith '23, who played King Triton. His costume featured an important accessory that inspired confidence, a sparkling trident. During rehearsals, he practiced with a variety of different items, including a pole, but when the trident was finished, it was game on! “Yes, it made me feel powerful," Kadyn said with a laugh. “And others who held it said that too."
Another important accessory for all of the undersea creatures was a pair of heelies--wheeled sneakers that allowed them to appear to skim across the stage. The characters had a fluid grace to their movements and included dance motions--particularly noticeable when a backlit Ariel, played by Annamarie Russell '23, transforms from a mermaid into a girl with--“what do you call them?" she asks her sidekick, Flounder, played by Nora Clingenpeel '25 --legs.
The show also used digital projections as backdrops, which allowed for multiple shifts in scenery and even movement on the screen, sometimes reinforcing the plot developments. Not only the technology was up to the moment. The show's themes met the times we are living through. As Director Bisi wrote in her director's notes, the show was all about joy and love:
“We have been on quite the journey the past two years," she wrote. “Our lives have been as unpredictable as the sea. Sometimes it’s low tide, sometimes it’s high tide...ebbing and flowing with the movement of the current. So, what better time to come together and hold on to a steadfast in this production - the courage to love."