Theater / Film

Giancarlo Rodaz leads an immersive ‘Little Mermaid’ and Area Stage Co. into the future

Written By Christine Dolen
August 7, 2023 at 2:51 PM

(Josslyn Shaw plays the adventurous, lovelorn Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” an immersive Area Stage production inside the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater opening in previews Wednesday, Aug. 9. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

As South Florida’s scorching summer rolls on and even a dip in the ocean leaves us feeling hot hot hot, Miami’s Area Stage Company has devised a refreshing escape.

Following last summer’s acclaim for Area Stage’s Carbonell Award-winning “Beauty and the Beast,” newly named artistic director Giancarlo Rodaz has turned to another beloved Disney title in his ongoing exploration of immersive theater: “The Little Mermaid.”

The imaginative plunge under the sea gets its debut inside the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht on Wednesday, Aug. 9. It runs through Sunday, Aug. 27.

Josslyn Shaw as Ariel and Aaron Hagos as Sebastian during a “Little Mermaid” rehearsal. (Photos courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

“I’ve just been enjoying immersive theater as its own medium,” says Rodaz, 27, who has done nearly every job at the company founded by his parents, John Rodaz and Maria Banda-Rodaz, in 1989.  “I like mixing things up and breaking all the rules.”

To that end, Rodaz reached out directly to Disney’s head of theatrical licensing, seeking permission to do the version of the script that ran on Broadway from 2007 to 2009.  Some changes were made when the show debuted in the Netherlands in 2012, and the second version is the one produced by regional theaters such as Fort Lauderdale’s Slow Burn Theatre Company, which will present its own “Little Mermaid” at the Broward Center beginning Friday, Dec. 15 and running through the month of December.

After a week of waiting, Rodaz got the go-ahead to produce the original Broadway version, which features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, and a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright.

Light and airy fabric helps create the magical, mysterious undersea world of Area Stage Company’s “The Little Mermaid” getting an immersive treatment at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Truth be told, in 1989 the animated version of “The Little Mermaid” launched a new era in Disney musicals, its success igniting an era dubbed “the Disney Renaissance” with such subsequent animated musical hits as “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Frozen” – well, it’s a long list.

Based on the disturbingly dark 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the Disney movie was written (and made sunnier) by John Musker and Ron Clements (for Broadway the two got a “based on” credit, along with Andersen), and it won Oscars for Menken’s score and the song “Under the Sea.”

The movie’s success led to a prequel, a sequel, a television series, the Broadway show, numerous productions in countries around the world and cities all over the United States, two celebrity-filled live-in-concert events at the Hollywood Bowl, a live television special and this year’s live action movie starring Halle Bailey as Ariel and Melissa McCarthy as the villainously scheming Ursula.

Not to mention all the books, toys, theme park tie-ins with an actress playing Ariel, Mermaid merchandise and Halloween costumes.  For more than three decades now, things have gone swimmingly for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Rodaz is thrilled to be exploring and presenting a version of the story he finds to be “so close to the original movie.”

He adds: “We are digging into the show as if it’s a brand-new musical.  That has carried over into rehearsals.  We’re getting rid of all the ideas used to portray the mermaids underwater – the costume pieces with tails, the wigs with hair in the air.  This is a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story that gets the audience really hooked.”

Should you have somehow avoided any exposure to “The Little Mermaid,” these are the story’s basics.

Ariel (played in the Area production by Josslyn Shaw) is a spirited, curious teen mermaid and youngest daughter of the undersea ruler King Triton (Frank Montoto).  Obsessed with exploring the human world above, she encounters the dashing Prince Eric (Henry Thrasher) and saves his life when he’s washed overboard in a storm.  Just like Romeo and Juliet, the two fall in love.

Josslyn Shaw as Ariel is surrounded by actors creating waves around her during a rehearsal for Area Stage Company’s “Little Mermaid. (Photos courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

The impediments to their romance are many: King Triton loathes humans.  Neither Ariel nor Eric could survive in the other’s world – unless she could somehow become human, which she’s determined to do.  The devious sea witch Ursula (Jonathan Chisolm) offers to transform her for three days, changing her tail into legs but taking away her beautiful voice, holding it in a magical nautilus shell and leaving Ariel mute. As for details and the resolution?  Audiences should experience those firsthand.

“Every Disney protagonist feels like a dreamer,” says Rodaz. “Everyone feels like an outsider, misunderstood, not seen in a way.  That’s the magic that’s inherent in Disney.”

To prep his cast for a show requiring most of the actors to navigate an underwater world, Rodaz invited the performers to his family’s home to go swimming as a start to building a vocabulary of movement.

Everyone did except for Chisolm, who notes, “I can’t swim.”

The show’s romantic leads are young performers in the early stages of building their post-university careers.

“It’s really cool to be doing the original Broadway script. And who doesn’t want to work in Florida?” says Shaw, who says she loves singing Ariel’s “Part of Your World” most. “Giancarlo gave us time to have a discovery process.  Everyone was willing to dive in. He created a safe, fun environment.”

Thrasher, a 2018 theater winner in the Miami-based National YoungArts Foundation competition, has sung Eric’s “Her Voice” for years and says the prince’s expression of love for Ariel often brings him to the verge of tears.  He also is moved by the quartet “If Only,” sung by Ariel, Triton, Eric and Ariel’s protector/sidekick Sebastian (Aaron Hagos).

“I love Alan Menken’s work, and this is one of my favorite scores.  It has such a variety of styles – it’s truly gorgeous,” says the actor.

Henry Thrasher plays Eric, the prince in love with Ariel, in Area Stage Company’s immersive production of “The Little Mermaid.” (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Chisolm, who uses the pronouns they/them, says, “I’m 31, and I have loved the ‘Little Mermaid’ movie for 20 years.  Ursula is the one I always respond to.  (She was) banished for killing and maiming people.  It’s high melodrama and very operatic storytelling.”

In the animated original, Ursula’s look and affect were inspired in large part by Divine, the curvaceous and uncensored character played by Harris Glenn Milstead in famous/infamous John Waters movies.  Ursula, Chisolm says, “is definitely a woman.  But as a non-binary and queer person myself, I have a strong sense of obligation to the way I play her.”

Unlike Area Stage newcomers Shaw, Thrasher and Chisolm, Hagos and Montoto have appeared in a number of the company’s productions.  Montoto was in the immersive versions of “Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and both actors admire  Rodaz’s approach to well-known musicals.

“It’s surreal to take a story everyone knows and do it a new way,” says Hagos.

Adds Montoto of his frequent director: “He always provides new challenges . . . He loves to bounce ideas off everybody.”

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” will be Rodaz’s first as Area Stage’s second artistic director.  Banda-Rodaz estimates the production’s cost as “in the neighborhood of $400,000;” creating theater at the Arsht Center is always costlier than producing at the company’s space in South Miami’s Shops at Sunset Place, home to Area Stage’s extensive conservatory program.

“I feel so proud to see the company continue under Giancarlo’s stewardship. He has been preparing for the role all his life,” says Banda-Rodaz, who is creating the “Little Mermaid” costumes along with Sofia Ortega. “Productions like ‘Annie’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ gave John the impetus to hand over the position, and we cannot wait to see what new artistic challenges Giancarlo will conquer.”

At 27, Giancarlo Rodaz is the second artistic director at Area Stage Company. His mother says he has been preparing for the role “his whole life.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Founding artistic director John Rodaz says of his son, “Giancarlo has been steeped in the world of performing arts since he was a child, and his journey has been nothing short of remarkable. From his early days performing on our stage to working behind the scenes and eventually directing his own productions, his commitment to artistic excellence and storytelling has shone through.  I have watched him grow as an artist and a leader, and I have faith in his ability to take Area Stage Company to even greater heights.”

Giancarlo Rodaz – called “John-John” by close friends, colleagues and family – remembers his journey vividly.

“I started by sweeping the theater and cleaning up after shows. It’s been inch by inch, moving forward,” he says. “When my dad started Area Stage, the focus was on Harold Pinter and David Mamet and so on.  When we moved to Riviera Plaza (the site has become the future home of a two-story Publix on South Dixie Highway across from the University of Miami), we switched the focus to education.   Now I want to find equilibrium between the mainstage and conservatory programs, so they can feed off each other.”

Following “The Little Mermaid,” Rodaz plans to produce an immersive version of “The Addams Family Musical” in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater Feb. 7-25.  And though he’s the one in charge, he’s glad his parents aren’t going anywhere.

“I’m lucky to have them around, guiding and advising me,” he says.

WHAT: Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”

WHERE: Area Stage Company production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: Previews 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9-10, opens 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through Aug. 27

COST:  $110 VIP (with immersive seating), $83.50 general admission, $52 students 3-22 (must show student ID), $31 lap seating (day of show only at box office)

INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at artburstmiami.com.

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