Evil witches and hostile queens squaring up against benevolent young female protagonists is de rigueur in the Disney canon. Yet, Kimberly Immanuel, cast as Ariel, a daughter of royal merfolk who longs to be part of the human world, in the Argyle Theatre’s production of “The Little Mermaid,” resists buying into the good guy-bad guy dynamic.
“I prefer not to think of them as hero and villain,” says Immanuel of her character and Ursula, the cunning, white-haired, half-octopus played by Courtney Balan. Instead, Immanuel, who grew up in Hicksville, says she approaches the role first sketched out in the 1989 blockbuster animated film in a more, so to speak, fleshed-out way.
“Visually Ariel may be two-dimensional, but emotionally she is so much more,” says the actress, just off a national tour and a string of Off-Broadway productions. “I look at her as a young girl with lots of ambition, one of the first feisty Disney princesses, and then I take from my own life — from what is honest to me. Ariel is 'stubborn as a barnacle,’ as Sebastian says. There is no reason for the prince to come and rescue her. She makes everything happen herself.”
Broadway actress and Locust Valley resident Balan takes a similar tack when playing the baddie sea witch. “I see Ursula as less fierce for the sake of being fierce and more flawed,” Balan explains. “She is frustrated and disappointed that she is a disgusting, sluggish octopus and ostracized by her siblings. It is not an excuse for her terrible behavior, but a reason.”
By playing Ursula as more human — malicious, yes, but not without motivation and an estimable amount of flair and wit — the possibilities, notes Balan, “are endless. The fact that she has tentacles only adds another layer.” A layer that is proving no less challenging. “The part comes with a lot more real estate,” she quips of her unwieldy costume. “I have to rely on other people to get in and out of it.”
Regardless of the two characters’ personal perspectives, “The Little Mermaid” is, at its core, a story about not fitting in. “When little girls see me dressed as Ariel, they are dumbfounded, staring with their mouths wide open,” says Immanuel.
“It not only speaks to young girls, but to every person who has felt like they do not belong and yearns for more. When I was little, I would spend hours singing Ariel’s ‘ahh, ahh, ahh’s,” she says of the scale of notes the Little Mermaid sings as Ursula steals her voice in exchange for a pair of human legs. “Now my family can’t believe I am actually being paid to do them.”
WHAT “The Little Mermaid”
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Friday and Thursday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 23, Argyle Theatre, 34 W. Main St., Babylon
INFO $35-$79; 844-631-5483, argyletheatre.com