Magic & Mischief As "The Little Mermaid" Comes To Nathan Hale

Lucy Gellman | July 26th, 2023

Magic & Mischief As

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Summer camp  |  Arts & Culture  |  Musical Theater  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Nathan Hale School

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Most of the ensemble is on and around the stage for "Kiss The Girl." Lucy Gellman Photos.

Just off Townsend Avenue, there was trouble brewing on the high seas. Netting caught in foamy, crashing blue waves that appeared out of nowhere. Thunder cracked and bellowed overhead, making its way through a thick curtain of sunshine. No rain fell, and yet a ship shuddered, its deck cracking clear in two. A prince flew overboard, unaware that someone was watching him from the water. 

It seemed for a moment that all was lost—and then the flash of a mermaid’s tail appeared, as if to say, It’s going to be okay. 

That underwater magic comes to Morris Cove this week, as Nathan Hale Elementary School and The PLAYground mount Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Jr. This year, almost 60 elementary and middle school students have joined the cast, with a dedicated crew of Nathan Hale alumni. 

For the third year in a row, the city has supported the school’s fledgling summer theater program with pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

All productions will take place in the school's auditorium (or as it is known through Saturday, the Kingdom of Atlantica), located at 480 Townsend Ave. (they were scheduled to be outdoors, but moved inside due to heat and predicted rain). Performances run July 27 and 28 at 6:30 p.m. and July 29 at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets and more information are available here. 

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Jermaine Cowan as Grimsby and Jericho Cubiz as Prince Eric.

“There are just so many ways to tell this story,” said Director Briana “Ms. B” Bellinger-Dawson, a beloved dance and theater teacher who left Nathan Hale for a full-time job at Wesleyan University in February of this year. “Ariel can look like any one of us. This is a play that looks like our community.”

For Bellinger-Dawson, who has taught hundreds of students through her work at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School and Nathan Hale, it was also the right year to do the show. Well before she had finished last year’s production of The Lion King, Jr. last summer, she knew that Disney had cast singer Halle Bailey in its live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. Because Bailey is Black, “I knew that there was going to be backlash,” she said. 

But when Bellinger-Dawson looked at the young actors at Nathan Hale, she didn’t see any of that bitterness or hostility. She saw a young, budding ensemble that looked and sounded like New Haven. To her, that’s the heart of the play: there’s no “supporting” role that doesn’t help make the show. Ursula needs her eels (Gabriella Osborn and Fiona Cox as Flotsam and Jetsam) to do her nefarious bidding. 

Ariel needs Scuttle (Harper Bunce), Flounder (Julian McGregor) and Sebastian (Rohn Heggie) to help set the mood and keep an eye on her. Even the haughty French chef de cuisine (Lucas Granucci) needs extra hands to make the kitchen run (and in this production, to have a kick line in the middle of preparing  a five-course meal). Bellinger-Dawson, who has never been “the girl that liked princesses,” loved that. 

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Alianna Gibbs as Ariel, Harper Bunce as Scuttle, and Jericho Cubiz as Prince Eric.

For students and teachers working on the show, it has transformed the school into an underwater kingdom, with enough enchantment, mischief, and laughter to carry them through the rest of the summer and perhaps back into the school year. Based on the 1989 Disney film and 2007 Broadway adaptation of the same name, The Little Mermaid tells the story of Princess Ariel (Alianna Gibbs), a mermaid who longs to know more about the human world, and has eyes for Prince Eric (Jericho Cubiz) after spotting him on the water from afar. 

It is, of course, a long shot: Ariel’s father (Elijah Cross as King Triton, in his last performance before high school) wants her close to the surface as much as any New Haven parent wants their kid riding an ATV through the city at 2 a.m. Eric doesn’t know that Ariel exists, and his guardian Grimsby (Jermaine Cowan) is preoccupied with getting him married, in a deathbed promise he made to Eric’s ailing father. Also, the two aren’t the same species. In that world as in this one, there are some laws against that. 

But all is not lost: evil auntie Ursula (a winning Cheyenne Williams) is able to turn Ariel’s tail into a pair of landlubbing legs for a few days, in return for her voice. If Eric doesn’t fall in love with her during that time, she’s damned as Ursula’s eternal mer-servant. Crazy, right? But because people do mind-boggling things when they’re in love—particularly when their power-hungry relatives are persuasive—Ariel sees this as a good idea. 

Cue the chaos, and the joy, and a little bit of Disneyfied calypso that arrives right on time.       

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Elijah Cross as King Triton and Rohn Heggie as Sebastian. 

On Nathan Hale’s outdoor stage, there’s so much that feels relatable, purple tentacles, tiaras and all. Triton isn’t controlling so much as an anxious single dad to four daughters, whose fear of the outside world comes directly from his own trauma. Ariel is curious in the way that teenagers are supposed to be, and struggles because her sidekicks give her limited and often incorrect information (no dinglehoppers or snarfblatts were harmed in the making of this play). Even Williams’ Ursula seems like a teachable villain, with moments of softness and strain that suggest she hasn’t been so hardened to the world forever.  

Around them, it’s the big, boisterous ensemble that gives the show its vibrant and often thrilling heartbeat, bringing together two worlds that aren’t so different after all. In that sense, it’s very New Haven: big cast numbers like “Under The Sea,” “Kiss The Girl” and “Les Poissons” feel like they could take place on the city’s beaches, in its crowded, bustling and polyphonic kitchens, in the middle of its summertime parades and festivals. It's The Little Mermaid as it was always supposed to be. 

On Tuesday morning, that universe came fully to life as pint-sized merpeople, scaly and shimmering fish, stripe-clad sailors and a small army of singing guppies took their places behind the stage, some already sweating in layers of wool and polyester. It was the second day of tech week, and if someone listened carefully enough, they could hear a tiny clock ticking down to showtime.  

Onstage, Elijah Cross fiddled with his gilded trident, running over his admonishments of Ariel one last time before the cast started Act II. As he pointed it at Alianna, a whooshing sound came from somewhere offstage, and the ocean rolled in, undulating as half a dozen actors in black ran around the stage with shimmering turquoise fabric. The ocean, in a flash, appeared over the hot and sun-soaked grass.   

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Kendall Granucci, Journey Rosa and Malachi Jones as seafarers. 

It was just past 10 a.m., and the ground was already baking beneath them. In a padded crab suit that glowed red in the sunlight, Rohn Heggie searched for a patch of shade. Dressed as Madame Carlotta, Mia Castillo called out that her left shoulder, buried under a slip of red velveteen, was suddenly very warm. Beneath layers of white fabric and an oversized orange beak, Harper Bunce squinted and pushed his costume off a sweaty brow. 

Then the music started, and it was as if a spell had been lifted. Cast members snapped to attention. Triton stood, his lines suddenly louder, his back straight. In her underwater grotto, Alianna looked around, delighting in depths of cobalt and navy, the strings of pearls that spilled from a treasure chest behind her. Jermaine Cowan, who had waited quietly to deliver his lines as Grimsby, adopted a crispness and wisdom far beyond his middle school years, sharp but never perfunctory.  

As he soared onto the stage and ostensibly above the water, Harper took on a thick, sometimes squawking New York accent that made a directors’ table burst into giggles. He prattled on, listing facts about humans, and laid on a dialect that landed somewhere between Trenton and the Bronx. 

“Remember, you flew all the way from New York to get here!” Bellinger-Dawson yelled out from beneath a tent. She jogged over to the stage, showing Harper how to stumble as if the wind were suddenly uneven. “That’s how I want you to fly.” The scene started from the top one last time.  

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Top: A run-through of "Kiss The Girl." Bottom: Crew members Coni Cornelius, Emilia Dipippo, Samantha Osborn, Savanna Petrucelli, and London Emery. All are Nathan Hale alumni who said they returned for "Ms. B." 

Students, most of whom attend Nathan Hale during the year, expressed excitement for the show as the cast broke for an early lunch, cooling down in the school’s air conditioned cafeteria. Outside, a handful of crew members helped science teacher Kristin Satawhite move the speakers onto the stage. In between lifting equipment and making time to eat, several of them said that they’d returned “for Ms. B.”

“It really gives you insight,” said Coni Cornelius, a Nathan Hale grad who is now a rising sophomore at Metropolitan Business Academy. “Knowing now that this is how I was when I was younger—” she trailed off for just a moment, and Savanna Petrucelli picked up where she left off. 

“It teaches you patience,” she said.   

Inside, someone flipped on the soundtrack to Encanto, and students began to sing along to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Holding court at the back of the room, Cheyenne Williams lifted a bottle of honey to her mouth, and tipped her head theatrically all the way back. A gray-and-black streaked wig traveled with her, and for a moment she was part middle schooler, part sea witch. The honey oozed gold, and she giggled before leaving the table. 

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Cheyenne Williams as Ursula with Assistant Director (and Nathan Hale parent) Lauren Holloway. 

A rising seventh grader at Nathan Hale, Cheyenne said she came into the play completely cold: she had never seen The Little Mermaid before this summer, and didn’t know who Ursula was or what she stood for. The first time she watched the live action film, she related immediately to the sea witch, who she sees as both misunderstood and a victim of the underwater patriarchy.  

“I just felt like there could have been more backstory to the villain,” she said. “There’s no way she could have just been a villain since birth. Something must have happened.”

When she was cast in the role, she thought about who Ursula was before The Little Mermaid caught up with her. In that world, the sea witch was King Triton’s sister, passed over for the throne because she didn’t have a (mer)man at her side. 

“I can relate,” she said: Cheyenne is the third of four children, and her younger brother is always “the star of the show” at home.  

She’s grown to love the role, she added—especially her star moment in “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” While Cheyenne is fairly quiet in school, Ursula is loud, bombastic, and mischievous—which makes the character super fun to play. It’s helped her step out of her comfort zone, and stretch the literal limits of her voice.

“I feel like acting can really come in handy sometimes,” she said. “I’m not sure how to explain it, but it comes in handy.”

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Sitting for a moment in the hallway, Jermaine Cowan said the show has also helped him build self-confidence. A rising eighth grader at Hamden Middle School, Jermaine first met Bellinger-Dawson through a music teacher, who suggested he might like Nathan Hale’s performing arts camp when it was still in its early stages.

While playing Maui in the school’s summer production of Moana, Jr., “I just grew to love acting,” he said. Last year, he grew his dramatic portfolio as he played Mustafa in The Lion King, Jr. As Grimsby, Prince Eric’s well-meaning but pushy guardian, his favorite part of the show is stumbling around the stage during a storm that ultimately leaves the ship in tatters. 

When he acts, “I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just a happy feeling,” he said. “It just feels great. I’ve learned to trust my gut, learned to sing and dance. It’s really changed my life.”

As she prepared to run Act II, Alianna took a momentary seat inside the school soaking in the air conditioning as she rocked her Converse-clad feet. A rising eighth grader at Nathan Hale, she said this year’s production has been about pushing herself. When she auditioned,  “I couldn’t imagine being Ariel,” she said. 

The role was too big; the thought of memorizing Ariel’s lines and singing center stage made her nervous. She wanted to be Ursula instead.

Then Bellinger-Dawson gave her a pep talk. “Ms. B said, ‘Don’t be mad if you don’t get the role you want,’” she remembered. It worked: where she used to get anxious singing in front of her peers, she doesn’t anymore. In five weeks, she’s learned that she and Ariel are a lot alike—although she doesn’t think of herself as quite as reckless.

“I do push my parents a lot,” she said with a mischievous smile that went from her mouth to her eyes. “But I’m more cautious than Ariel. She doesn’t know the consequences of some of the things she does. I just want to wait until I’m older to do some things.”    

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Top: Ms. B. in action. Bottom: Lauren Holloway and Kristin Satawhite.

That reminder of play and of pushing boundaries echoed back outside, as directors prepared to run bows. Because of her new job at Wesleyan, Bellinger-Dawson worked on the play remotely for some of the summer. In her stead, Nathan Hale parent Lauren Holloway stepped in as assistant director. 

So did Nathan Hale music teacher Arick Lyde, science instructor Kristin Satawhite (“I was a church kid, and I love to sing,” she said with a smile), and Mauro-Sheridan theater instructor Emily Roberson-Dos Santos. Tuesday, preschool teacher Marissa Gambardella and math coach Kate Liphardt were also there to rally the troops. Throughout the summer, art teacher Stephanie Smelser has helped students with the set.   

In Ariel’s happy ending—which doesn’t come without some serious growing pains—Bellinger-Dawson sees a reflection of the motley crew that has banded together to bring the work to life. When asked what keeps her coming back, she smiled and gestured toward the cast, which was preparing to run bows for the first time.

“Them,” she said.

“It wouldn’t be The Little Mermaid without everyone singing,” she added. “When you add all these people, all these personalities, that’s what makes the show.” 

Performances run July 27 and 28 at 6:30 p.m. and July 29 at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets and more information are available here.