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The Rep goes 'Under the Sea' for the holidays 

In 'The Little Mermaid.'

BEWITCHING: Ursula (Amy Jo Jackson) and the Little Mermaid (Katie Emerson) star in The Rep's production of the Disney classic.
  • BEWITCHING: Ursula (Amy Jo Jackson) and the Little Mermaid (Katie Emerson) star in The Rep's production of the Disney classic.

This holiday season the Arkansas Repertory Theatre will be taking families on a fantastic undersea journey with Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder, Ursula, Flotsam, Jetsam and others from Disney's classic "The Little Mermaid."

All your favorite songs will be brought to life onstage, from the instantly recognizable steel drum melody of "Under the Sea" to the wicked va-va-voom of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" to the universal longing for something new and different in "Part of That World." And who could forget "Les Poissons," the classic ode to seafood preparation as sung by the lunatic French chef Louis.

"I'm going to be hiding under the table for that scene, and I'm glad I'm not going to be mic'd because I'll probably be trying not to laugh the whole time," said Cornelius Davis, who plays Sebastian the crab.

Folks in their mid-20s to mid-30s, many of whom are now having kids themselves, were raised on these songs, which helped kick-start a Disney revival that went on through most of the '90s. "Before the casting call I got all the songs and couldn't stop listening to them, had them stuck in my head for days. I really love all of them," said Shayne Kennon, who plays Prince Eric.

In an interview, many of the cast members described their roles as "bucket list" and "dreams coming true." Katie Emerson, a Jonesboro native who plays Ariel, said, "I have been practicing for this since 1989." Amy Jo Jackson, who plays Ursula the sea witch, added, "I've been singing 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' professionally for 15 years, and unprofessionally for much longer."

The production adds a great deal of new material, including 10 new songs and more backstory on some of the main characters, making the two-dimensional animated characters a little more three-dimensional on stage. "We've been working to make them more emotional and real. People can relate more to why Sebastian is caring for Ariel, and why Ursula is the way she is, so they can connect better to those characters," Emerson says.

The directors had a bit of a challenge in how to create the illusion of being underwater since so much of the action takes place there. They hired 2 Ring Circus, an acrobatics troupe from New York that will be performing with silks, trapeze and more. "They bring an element of vertical space to create more layers for the big underwater scenes," director Melissa Rain said. " 'Under the Sea' is basically its own show, with great choreography on the ground and acrobatics, while Cornelius sings the hell out of it. People will want to see it twice," she added.

The cast also had high praise for costume director Rafael Colon Castanera, who designed the many flowing costumes that create the appearance of being worn underwater. "The costumes we have seen so far are unbelievable. They actually look like how they were drawn and designed, which is something you rarely see," Jackson said.

"[Castanera] is so passionate and intelligent with the choices he makes," Davis added.

"The play works on many levels, where adults will appreciate all the effort and artistry that goes into it, and the kids will just say, 'Wow!' " Jackson said.

Other highlights include Ursula's eel cronies Flotsam and Jetsam, who according to Anderson are played by "twins who are on the verge of being the exact same person" and a charming tap dance number with Scuttle and his seagull pals.

To celebrate the play and the holiday season, The Rep will be decking the halls with holiday decor and selling ornaments and artwork. It's partnering with Loblolly Creamery for a special flavor, "Under the Sea Salt" ice cream, as well as with Vino's and Moody Brews for a craft beer called "Seas the Day Saison."

"Mermaid" opens Friday, Dec. 4, and plays through Sunday, Jan. 3. Special events include a panel discussion at the Clinton School at noon Thursday, Dec. 3, Pay Your Age Night on Sunday, Dec. 6; Family Day on Sunday, Dec. 13; and Sign Interpreter Night on Wednesday, Dec. 16. More info at therep.org.

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