By Khalida Sarwari
There is good news for those staring longingly at summer in the rearview mirror, not ready to let go just yet. There is one more journey to take, even though the destination isn’t on any world map.
Broadway San Jose will kick off its 2017-18 season at the Center for Performing Arts by taking audiences to a magical kingdom beneath the sea with the national touring production of the beloved Disney animated film, “The Little Mermaid.”
Based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved stories and cemented into pop culture history in 1989 by Disney, “Mermaid” tells the story of Ariel (played by Diana Huey), a 16-year-old mermaid princess who, dissatisfied with underwater life in the kingdom of Atlantica, satiates her curiosity about the human world by traveling often to the surface of the ocean. Upon one of these trips, she encounters Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) and is immediately smitten with him, longing to become human and join his world.
Kunze brings a unique familiarity to the part of Prince Eric, having played the role in various incarnations of the production since 2012. There are a number of reasons he continues to return to the show, he said.
“It’s the music; it’s so well-written,” said the San Diego native. “It fits well in a singer’s voice; they write for singers and they write for the voice, so it’s a pleasure to sing that music. I think reaching out to a generation of children that’s exposed to musical theater—that’s pretty cool and hopefully we’re inspiring another generation of singers. That makes it special.”
Kunze deems his character as more fleshed out in the stage version of “Mermaid” compared to the movie, where he said Prince Eric is portrayed more as a free spirit with an affinity for the sea. In this version, there’s more of a focus on his sense of not belonging to the world that he inhabits, a commonality he shares with Ariel.
“They realize they’re both fish out of water,” Kunze said. “It’s actually very sweet and the core of it is they both… don’t belong and I think a lot of kids and 20-somethings, too, can relate to that.”
Hometown star Bety Le plays the Ariel double in the national touring production, which means she does most of the flying and underwater stunts. She also has a part as Carlotta the maid. Originally from San Jose, Le is a 2004 graduate of Westmont High School and performed with Children’s Musical Theatre until the age of 8. She was also a competitive synchronized swimmer with the Santa Clara Aquamaids, earning national champion titles for them up until she was 16.
Le will showcase those skills on stage in a number of scenes. She’s in the opening scene, end of the first act and the big transformation scene where Ariel turns into a human, which Le described as a choreographed sequence where Ariel loses her fins as she’s swimming.
“I’m a synchronized swimmer as well so I feel like my career has gone full circle; now I swim on stage,” she said in a phone interview from Oklahoma City.
For a performer who had to overcome her fear of heights when she first started, Le has come a long way. “I remember the first time I flew up, my palms started sweating so profusely and I thought I’m going to get fired,” she recalled. “And now, it’s liberating. I love flying in the show. I really am proud of the work that I do in the show and the flying involved in it.”
Le said she was asked to join the second leg of the tour in May by members of the creative team behind “Mermaid,” which includes director Glenn Casale, choreographer John MacInnis, musical director and conductor Colin Freeman and scenic designer Kenneth Foy. At the time, she was relatively new in New York, where she still lives when she’s not on tour.
“It’ll be exciting to go back to San Jose,” she said. “It’s a bit surreal getting to perform at the theater in downtown San Jose, because that’s where I used to go to watch shows growing up.
“I’m sure it will mean a lot when I’m actually there backstage and get to look up at the balcony where I usually got my seats.”
During her short stay in San Jose, Le said she looks forward to seeing family and friends, speaking at Westmont and Independence High School to musical theater students and, if she can squeeze it in, paying a visit to a certain local haunt.
“Every time we go on tour, we try to see something special,” she said. “I’ve never been to the Winchester Mystery House so it’ll be nice to do that.”
The national tour is produced by the Pittsburgh CLO & Kansas City Starlight. “Mermaid” runs Sept. 26-Oct. 1 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $48-$228 at ticketmaster.com, 800-982-ARTS (2787) or the City National Civic Box Office, 150 W. San Carlos St., San Jose. For more information, visit http://broadwaysanjose.com/the-little-mermaid.