Under the Sea: Deptford brings “Little Mermaid” to the stage this week

A half hour or so before 10 teenagers would rely on it to keep them, ahem, afloat, the main piece at the center of the stage at Deptford Township High School was still undergoing work.

The boat needed some repairing, in the form of securing two-by-fours on its floor. The set’s main production piece at the start of the day’s rehearsal is slanted upward, so the crowd can see the actors.

The crew of faculty and students took care of it with relative ease. The rehearsal went on with everyone safe and secure.

In fact, the actors were so engaging it was easy to forget about the behind-the-scenes work to make the latest iteration of “The Little Mermaid” a successful one.

This week, beginning on Thursday night, Deptford High will host the musical version of the beloved Disney classic. “The Little Mermaid,” the school’s annual spring musical, will play on March 7, 8 and 9.

The show, which includes nearly two dozen songs, including an interactive performance of “Under the Sea” runs at 7 p.m. on the first two nights and at 2 p.m. on March 9. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.

“I’m excited,” said Deptford High junior Steven Smith, who is playing Sebastian the crab. “Maybe in the first couple years (I’d be nervous), but now it’s ‘Let’s do this.’ I want to make people laugh and make them smile. It’s a show they know, so let’s bring back all of those old memories and let them have fun with it.”

Smith and fellow junior Gianna Wolfe, who is playing Ursula the sea witch, are veterans on the Deptford High drama circuit. This will be their fifth production, following “Young Frankenstein,” “Clybourne Park,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and “Harvey.”  The latter ran in the fall, with Smith and Wolf playing the protagonist’s siblings.

Although “Harvey” was a comedy, moving from a traditional play to a Disney kids movie-inspired musical requires some work. The production of “The Little Mermaid” is twice as big (in terms of the sheer number of faculty and students working), includes numerous dress changes, and, of course, the challenge of syncing music to dialogue.

Deptford High has enlisted professional musicians to fill the pit and produce the popular score for the show.

“There’s a lot of underlying music, so we’ve been trying to get our lines on top of the underlying music so it fits right,” Wolfe said of the tricky process. “We end up having to cut music sometimes because we’re saying our lines too quickly. And some of us are too slow, so we have to find that in-between and be consistent.”

Deptford High School drama students Christina Tarrach (Flounder), Eliza Torres (Ariel) and Eugene Lutz (Scuttle) run through a rehearsal of “The Little Mermaid” a week before the annual spring musical opens. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

This isn’t to say playing in “Harvey” was easy. But “The Little Mermaid” offers a series of fun challenges.

“It’s a different kind of atmosphere,” Smith said. “‘Harvey’ and (other) plays you have to focus more on keeping people interested character-wise, how do I keep them engaged no matter what I say, if I’m sad, happy, whatever This, it’s like …”

“Acting, singing, dancing,” Wolfe interjected.

“I need to get them interested in this whole character,” Smith said, “and I need to catch them with my song, and my dance. And not run out of breath.”

With about a week remaining until the first show, both Smith and Wolfe were continuing to hone in on their characters, too.

How do you research the art of perfecting the portrayal of a cartoon crab? You watch the movie, of course, and the Broadway performances, and other high school productions, too, Smith said.

“‘Harvey’ was more serious, playing a person,” he said. “Now it’s like, you’re playing a crab. And you’re Jamaican. Get on that!”

Wolfe laughed out loud.

“I’ve been watching a lot of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ she said. “I’m trying to get the drag queen diva down.”

“The Little Mermaid” opens on Thursday, March 7 at 7 p.m. and plays again at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 8. Saturday’s matinee begins at 2 p.m. Advance tickets are $10 ($12 if purchased at the door). Call (856) 232-2713, extension 2566 to reserve your seat.

(RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)