Playing the lead role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid is a dream come true for musical actress Shani Wahrman.
“I’ve been obsessed with Disney princesses since I was about three,” says the 35-year-old Kfar Saba resident. “The Little Mermaid was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater, and we had to leave in the middle because I was scared. Belle is my favorite Disney princess – I played her in the Beit Hillel production of Beauty and the Beast – but I am a redhead and I always related best to Ariel. It was a bucket-list thing to play her.”
The Beit Hillel Theater Workshop production is to be presented at Rachel Simon Hillel Theater at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus from November 29 to December 7.
Atara Mayer, 34, feels the same way about playing Ursula the sea witch.
“I have a deep voice, so I’m not a princess,” says Mayer, who like Wahrman grew up partly in Israel and partly in the United States. “I have always related to the villains. Other moms would buy their kids Disney princess stuff and my mom would buy me Disney villain stuff. Last year, my mom bought me a 1,000-piece Ursula puzzle. Playing Ursula in a musical production of The Little Mermaid has been my dream for at least a decade.”
Michael Berl, director of the nonprofit theater group since its inception 37 years ago, had a different dream: returning live theater to Jerusalem “after a seemingly endless period of empty theaters” due to the pandemic.
Ordinarily, Beit Hillel gets 1,500 to 2,000 people at nine or 10 shows over Hanukkah. “We picked Hanukkah for practical reasons, because kids are home from school,” said Berl. “It became a tradition for English-speaking families in the Jerusalem area to go to Hillel shows. When corona came, we decided to learn the rules and see if we could manage. We have a 200-seat theater, and were told we could sell 75% of the seats and people would have to show some kind of documentation.”
The 2020 Hanukkah show never happened, of course, but in the late spring the troupe performed Elton John’s Aida. To minimize exposure, rehearsals were done in small groups, in hallways and outdoors, until the final stages.
Wahrman, who simultaneously is putting on a musical version of Alice in Wonderland with her students at the Democratic School in her hometown, recalls that when auditions were announced for Aida, “I thought they were crazy to do this during a global pandemic. Someone else was cast in the lead and eventually had to leave because she didn’t want to be vaccinated. So I got a phone call. I was vaccinated twice at that point and decided to go for it. It was the first thing I did in a year and a half that brought me out of the house.”
It was no different for audience members, Berl says. “On opening night, most people hadn’t been inside any theater in God knows how long. I got an ovation when I introduced the show – that’s how excited people were.”
However, the production lost money and had to cut three of the nine planned shows. To recoup expenses, the workshop performed a concert of Disney songs in June.
“Now we’re back to Hanukkah shows because corona is reasonably under control,” says Berl. “We rehearse in masks. It’s hard to teach harmony when the actors are not standing next to one another. There are challenges, but we will get through this.”
It helps that the play is so much fun, says Berl. “There are a lot of laughs, and the costumes [designed by Dena Davies] are crazy.”
BASED ON a 19th-century fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the story is about a young mermaid who wants to become human. In the jaunty Disney version, the teenage mermaid Ariel falls in love with a human prince, Eric, to be played by Nitzan Ben Ari.
Ariel’s delightful seagull friend, Scuttle – voiced by Buddy Hackett in the 1989 Disney film – will be played by Arella Mayer, Atara’s 31-year-old sister.
“I don’t sing in the show; I mostly squawk,” says Arella Mayer, a graduate student in clinical social work from Safed. She’s bunking with her sister in the Jerusalem suburbs for the rehearsal period.
“This is like my neshama role,” she says. “People actually call me Scuttle.”
A big fan of the show’s award-winning score, Mayer once sang “Kiss the Girl” at the University of Maryland, where Arella and Atara helped establish a Jewish a cappella group. “I squawked in that too,” she says.
“Kiss the Girl” is a calypso ballad sung by a lively crab, Sebastian, to be played by Bryan Friedland of Jerusalem. Friedland has been acting in Beit Hillel productions for nearly 19 years. This will be his 21st show.
“I love that usually you’re able to get into a character, tell a story on stage, and put whatever is happening in your life outside for a while and entertain yourself as well as your audience,” Friedland says.
The Houston native, who made aliyah 26 years ago, says Sebastian “really wants to be there for this girl he has watched grow up. He has a good heart and wants to do the right thing but not get himself into any trouble – and that’s something I can relate to.”
Friedland recalls singing the smash hit “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid “about 30 years ago in front of my entire school, in a talent show in second grade.”
Lulu Dubin, 34, is part of the ensemble, “playing the meanest sister and other characters.” She came from New York 11 years ago and started doing theater shortly after her arrival. But she hasn’t been in a show for six years as she and her husband have been building their family in Tzur Hadassah.
The mother of three says she initially wasn’t going to audition for The Little Mermaid, “but I felt I needed to do something for myself. I hadn’t left my house for a very long time, and I was a little concerned about corona but slowly things have been getting better and less concerning.”
Atara Mayer, a teacher at Pelech Banim high school, says that returning to the realm of theater under corona restrictions “is annoying, but I’m grateful we can bring people live theater again. The cast is a group of incredibly talented people who work very hard and is very supportive of one another. Working on a show can be an overwhelmingly emotional experience, and to do it with the support of this group is incredible. It’s a roomful of talent, positive energy, support and hard work.”
Friedland says the cast is committed to doing an excellent show despite all the obstacles.
“People often ask why I don’t perform for other theater companies,” he says. “As Bert Lancaster’s character said in Field of Dreams, ‘This is my most special place in all the world. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.’
“I feel the same way about this theater workshop. I want people to come and see the show and we want to be able to see our audience. Nothing will stop us – not corona, not anything.”
Nine shows are planned, including some matinees, on November 29 and 30, and December 1, 2, 6 and 7. All tickets cost NIS 90. A Green Pass with a bar code, or a negative corona test taken in the previous 24 hours, is required for entry to the university campus and the theater. The audience, including children, must wear face masks.
Reserved online seating: www.eventer.co.il/user/littlemermaid, or call 055-977-8086 or 055-984- 6381.