Actor Andre Shoals has audience ‘in the palm of his hand’
By Dwight Hobbes
Disney has a long track record of entertaining kids and hasn’t done a bad job of holding adults’ attention either, especially with its stage versions of the corporation’s animated hit films. The Lion King, for instance, which launched its two-month world premiere here at the Orpheum Theater, went on to win a Tony Award for Best Musical. With tours now running literally all over the globe, the show became pretty much a license to mint money. There’s also been Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and, of course, The Little Mermaid, which presently is running at Chanhassen Dinner Theaters (CDT).
Granted not everyone is up on everything done by the house that Mickey Mouse built. So, for the benefit of those who don’t know the story, it’s an old Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about Ariel, a young lady living beneath the waves in the province of her dad, King Triton. Who, with good reason, has forbidden his subjects, her included, to have contact with the world above. A typical youngster, she’s hardheaded and can’t wait to do the direct opposite of what she’s been told.
Soon as he’s not looking, she’s off to go snoop around topside to see what that’s all about and winds up being smitten by — what else — a handsome prince. She falls so head-over-heels in love that she determinedly turns her back on her people, on who she is, so she can be with him and live happily ever after as something she’s not.
A sterling showcase role is the comic relief figure, Triton’s faithful servant, court composer and, importantly, Ariel’s guardian — the lovable, beleaguered, stouthearted Sebastian the Crab. Who has the thankless task of trying to spirit Ariel out of trouble and, of all things, lets her rope him into helping her defy her dad by assisting in her efforts to chase after landlubber Prince Eric.
While it’s a luckless undertaking for the character, it’s a peach of a find for any actor. To wit, Samuel E. Wright, who portrayed Mufasa in the world premiere of The Lion King, acted and sang Sebastian on-screen, most notably for the Academy Award- and Grammy Award-winning number in the film “Under the Sea.” For this production, the choice honor falls to Andre Shoals.
“When I found out that Chanhassen was mounting a production of the musical,” he says, “I was super excited. I saw the movie when it originally hit the theaters back in the late ‘80s and fell in love.
“Sam E. Wright, who voiced Sebastian, is an amazing talent with an awesome voice. I’m a huge fan of Tituss Burgess, who played Sebastian in the Broadway version, and couldn’t wait to tackle this part.
“Sebastian is such a great character,” Shoals continues. “He is funny, colorful, sensitive, stern when he needs to be. There is a whole range of emotions to play with, which to an actor is like performance gold.”
Shoals, a St. Paul native, has a strong pedigree. He started dancing in high school, graduating St. Paul Central, then went on to a scholarship, studying at the world renowned Alvin Ailey School of American Dance. He returned to these parts to perform with Zenon Dance Company before returning east to work with such companies as Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co., Jane Comfort Dance Co., Susan Marshall & Co. and Doug Elkins Dance as well as noted choreographers Sarah Skaggs and Jamie Ortega.
After six years in New York City, he moved to Boston and began acting, co-founding the fringe theatre company The Gold Dust Orphans. He’s now resettled in the Twin Cities and continues his career with such venerated venues as Park Square, Theater Latte Da and, of course, CDT.
Andre Shoals quite understandably is having the time of his life with this featured performance and says of working on the role with resident artistic director Michael Brindisi, “[He] is incredible. He has a way of pulling the best out of his actors, and he isn’t afraid to let you experiment and make suggestions. That’s important.”
Brindisi, whose credentials are impressive, including You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Ordway Center and A-list CDT productions, has favorable things to say in return. “Andre is great because he doesn’t fight playing what the character is. He just plays it as it should be.
“I went up to him once in rehearsal and said ‘I like the accent.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s what it is isn’t it?’ So often actors want to make it something different and they fight what it is.”
Brindisi adds, “Andre has the audiences in the palm of his hand, and the kids just love him.” He says of the vehicle itself, “I like directing plays that I had trouble with in my initial readings. Footloose was an example. So is The Little Mermaid. It makes you work harder to find the strengths. If you work harder you almost always find things that make you like the play even more.
“Also, you work harder on your concept ideas, which hopefully make the storytelling stronger. For instance, the idea to make the audience part of the undersea world is a concept idea that really contributed to making the production fun for our audiences.”
Suffice to say it seems the magic of Disney is in good hands with this staging of a regional premiere.
The Little Mermaid runs through August 30 at Chanhassen Dinner Theaters located at 501 West 57th Street in Chanhassen. For tickets, call their box office at 952-934-1525.
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