After what could be an attendance record-breaking start to the 2023 season with Rent, Rainbow Stage is once again ready to welcome huge crowds of all ages under its iconic open-air dome for Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
The production is stacked with almost all local talent that will surely have you singing in your seats, while you and your little ones will be blown away by the colourful costumes and impressive stage commanded by a massive wooden ship that will have up to eight actors on it in one scene (it’s spectacular).
“The artistic quality of this show is top notch, while also being a title that brings people into the theatre and introduces them to live theatre at a really young age,” said Rainbow Stage Artistic Director Carson Nattrass.
“And when you look up on stage you see what Manitoba looks like – there’s only one actor not from here – and I’m very proud we can fill the stage with Manitoba artists. Not only may you see someone on stage who represents you, but you also know that they are not from New York – they are from here, which means you can do it too.”
Nattrass is thrilled with Julia Ulayok Davis, the Inuk singer and performer who plays Ariel.
“She has perfect pitch and has trained with some of the best opera singers in the world,” said Nattrass.
“She knew before her audition for the role that she’d be on tour with Manitoba Theatre for Young People at the time of our callback auditions. So, she sang this tiny bit of music, and then we're like – she can't make it to callbacks! And the callback is singing ‘Part of Your World!’ continued Nattrass.
“And we're like, ‘oh, no, we didn't give her the music!’ Then Julia said, I know it! And she sang the whole thing and we all cried… And I was like, ‘How soon can we offer her this job?”
Joining Ulayok Davis in the interview below is Tyler Leighton, a Rainbow Stage veteran whose family has a history with the company, as well as Brampton, Ontario's Joema Frith, who is the only non-Manitoban in the production. Leighton sings and does plenty of tapping as the loveable seagull Scuttle, while Frith has the coveted role of Sebastian the crab, whom my six-year-old just may be named after.
Coming from a Little Mermaid super-fan household, the interview covers topics like what to expect from the show and what scenes the cast is most looking forward to. I also couldn't help but add a question from my kids who can’t wait to see the production next week.
What’s your history with Rainbow Stage?
Tyler Leighton: This is my fourth production with Rainbow Stage, as I became involved at a young age. My first production was at age nine back in 2008 when I was in Peter Pan, then I was in the children's chorus of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Mamma Mia! about six years ago. I grew up around Rainbow Stage – I live five minutes from here and I grew up in this neighbourhood – and I have had family members performing on the stage for many years as well. My uncle Kevin McIntyre has been in several shows over the years, as well as my grandfather who has been the president of Rainbow Stage and on the board of directors, so it's a family affair.
Julia Ulayok Davis: This is my second production with Rainbow Stage. My first was last year. I played Toto – or I should say I was a Toto puppeteer in The Wizard of Oz.
Joema, this is your first time with Rainbow Stage. How magical is this venue?
Joema Frith: Oh, it's insane – and outdoors! I've never performed in an outdoor theatre and it's beautiful. And honestly, it's really interesting to hear kids playing outside [during rehearsals] and how you see the trees over the stage. I watched Rent when I first came to the city, and I loved watching the lights slowly set with the sun and how everything gets even more beautiful on stage. It was just so gorgeous. And it's a huge theatre. It's really quite magical.
The Little Mermaid is obviously an iconic musical. What’s your background with it?
Ulayok Davis: To be honest, it was the first thing that made me love music. I fell in love with Ariel and I loved the story and the music. I think it was the first song I learned how to sing as my parents had a CD or a tape in the car that they would play. I learned “Part of Your World” and I actually posted a little clip on my Instagram singing it when I was three… as I just love that song.
For you Joema, being Sebastian, and getting to do “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” You know you’re going to look out on the audience and see kids in crab suits singing along with you. What’s that going to be like on opening night?
Frith: It's going to be really beautiful watching it happen, and the fun thing about Sebastian is his voice is my uncle’s and my dad's and my family's. I am Jamaican, so just hearing that voice – it's so fun – and I know there are going to be people in the audience who identify with that and really enjoy that. And “Under the sea” [as he starts to sing perfectly] ‘darling it’s better down where it’s wetter!’ Everyone knows those lines from the show and I feel like you're going to hear a lot of people in the audience gasp, as they finally get to hear this thing brought to life. It just scratches that cool itch in the back of your head.
Julia, I have to ask as Carson already told me about how you brought everyone to tears during your audition. What was that like?
I think “Part of Your World” wasn’t actually one of the audition songs, but I knew I wouldn't be able to make the callbacks. So they said, you can send in your video for “Party our Your World” and I said, ‘can I sing it now?’ I’ve been singing it forever, so I really got into it and then I looked up at the casting table and it was all smiles and tears. It was a really special experience. I went home, and I think I cried for an hour straight to my mom. Big happy tears.
Tyler, you are a world-class tap dancer. Have you ever tapped as a seagull? And what are these costumes like to don, because they are quite something, aren’t they?
Leighton: Yeah, they are wild! It'll be the most colourful show that anybody's ever seen. There are no 'real people' other than a few like Eric and Grimsby. It's all this make-believe world of these ‘under the sea’ creatures with mermaids and flying fish and manta rays. And it's just insane to see the colours and the detail in the costumes and stuff – including lots of feathers on me.
And I hear that your feet are being mic’d up?
Leighton: Yeah, for the opening of act two, there's a big tap number called "Positoovity" that Scuttle sings to Ariel. There's a whole ensemble of seagulls that join him as his sort of backup dancers. And yeah, my feet are mic’d up, which is something I've only heard of happening in big Broadway shows like 42nd Street.
I have to ask one question on behalf of my young kids, one of whom is named Sebastian for you. Joema: Are you and Chef Louis (played by Rainbow Stage regular Nathaniel Muir) still friends, even though he wants to cook you?
Frith: Ha ha, actually Nathaniel and I share a table in the dressing room! He’s such a kind man and a great performer. I have a great relationship with him and a lot of admiration for his talent and skill. And you are going to really enjoy that scene. I’m supposed to be scared but in my head I’m having such a good time.
Leighton: He’s [Nathaniel] so funny. We've probably seen that scene two dozen times now in rehearsals and the audience is going to be killing themselves with laughter.
Ulayok Davis: I’m in tears every time. It’s so good.
Julia, your face is all over Winnipeg right now as Ariel. I assume you must be the first Inuk performer to play Ariel in a major production like this. What does that mean for you and for people in the audience who are going to be coming, and for your community?
Ulayok Davis: It means more than I could ever even say. There was a long time when I thought maybe that it wasn't possible... maybe it just wasn't a role that I was meant to play even though I felt in my heart that it was.
I hope I can inspire other young Indigenous singers or people in theatre – I know I have a zillion younger siblings, I really do – who love Disney movies. They can't wait for the next one to come out and they know all the songs, and it really means a lot to them to see me up there.
The Little Mermaid runs from August 17 to September 3. Opening night is already sold out, so be sure to get your tickets here now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.