It has been a few months since Diana Huey donned the flowing red wig and fishy tail of Ariel for a touring production of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”
But now Huey is back as the star in the stage version of the beloved 1989 Disney film about a mermaid who dreams of being human. This first leg of a new national tour kicks off Starlight Theatre’s summer season June 3-11. The show retains most of the cast from the previous tour, which ended in March and was produced by Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.
While the actress said diving back into such an iconic role will be natural (“It’s a muscle memory kind of thing,” she said), there is one tricky part she’s nervous for.
You see, the tour pulls off some Disney magic with complicated aerial (Ariel?) acrobatics.
“In this show, we’re flying,” Huey explained just before her first rehearsal at Starlight this week. “We’re in harnesses, and we fly across the stage to make it look like we’re swimming. We have super long mermaid tails on our feet while we’re hanging in the air.
“Now that I haven’t done it in a couple of months, I say, ‘It’s not that bad,’ but I may regret it when I get back in there,” she said, laughing.
Playing the role comes with pressure, Huey said, and she has embraced the chance to make Ariel her own.
In the movie (based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale), Ariel is a 16-year-old princess who is willing to give up her undersea family and home because of her obsession with humans and teenage crush on Prince Eric. In this production, however, the mermaid has a more realistic motivation that gives kids an empowering lesson.
“In this new musical, they really ‘do’ her up,” Huey said. “She decides that she doesn’t really fit in under the sea, and she doesn’t feel like she’s in the right place. It’s more of a self-discovery thing as opposed to, ‘I’m a girl, and I just like to chase boys and I like forks.’ It’s about standing up for yourself.”
Huey also adds something distinctive to her role: She’s Asian-American. When she first auditioned in Seattle, she was afraid producers wouldn’t cast her, and, when they did, she was afraid of the blowback that might come. Fortunately, she received only one negative comment early in that run.
“The cool thing was the response from the community, saying it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “She’s a fictional creature, so if you want to get technical with it, she’s really not anything (when it comes to race).”
So, completely by chance, she has found herself as a role model for other actors of color. She frequently receives messages on social media from young actors who see her in an iconic role saying she has inspired them to keep going in a field that’s difficult for non-white actors.
But what’s the greatest, she said, is the reaction from the children in audiences.
“When I go to the theater and I meet the kids after the show, it’s just the coolest thing,” she said. “They don’t see color; they’re just like, ‘Wow, Ariel!’ When I’m walking with not a wig on and not a tail on, they don’t see me as like, ‘Oh, she’s Asian; that doesn’t make sense.’ It’s really, really awesome when I get comments from parents or kids that are not white, and they’re like, ‘That was really inspirational.’ ”
Despite these changes, Huey said “The Little Mermaid” is still filled with the nostalgia that gets parents and children alike, no matter the age, humming the tunes.
Like the time she was singing the line in “Part of Your World”: “Walking around on those — what do you call ’em …” and a young boy in the audience filled in the lyric for her, screaming “Feet!”
That’s Huey’s favorite memory so far.
“It was the most magical thing I’ve ever experienced onstage,” she said.
“Disney’s The Little Mermaid” runs June 3-11 at Starlight Theatre. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.