By Amy Stumpfl
There’s something rather fishy going on at Nashville Children’s Theatre these days. And Brian Hull couldn’t be happier.
The master puppet designer has been hard at work, creating a host of colorful sea creatures especially for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which opens at NCT on November 8.
Based on the beloved story by Hans Christian Andersen and the hit animated film, this charming musical features familiar Alan Menken songs such as “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World.” But there’s also plenty of NCT magic planned for this regional premiere adaptation – from Hull’s clever designs to original orchestrations.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with Nashville Children’s Theatre,” says Hull, who established Wishing Chair Productions at Nashville Public Library in 1997, continuing the library’s rich tradition of storytelling with puppets. “I’m really blown away by their work, and it’s just such a lovely, joyful environment. [Executive Artistic Director] Ernie Nolan is so sharp, and incredibly enthusiastic – it’s always a pleasure to collaborate with them.”
Local audiences may recall Hull’s considerable contributions to past NCT productions, including James and the Giant Peach and last season’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins. But The Little Mermaid presented some unique challenges.
“Because this is a Disney title, the characters have to be recognizable,” says Hull, an Emmy Award-winner who heads up his own company outside the library – BriAnimations Living Entertainment – and also writes/directs shows for Dollywood’s Imagination Library. “If our Sebastian doesn’t look like the movie’s Sebastian, the kids will know – and they’ll call you on it. Plus, you have to be able to see everything from the back of the theater, whether they’re swimming around or even just opening and closing their eyes. So these puppets had to be a little bigger than usual, but still have all the fun details.”
Of course, they also need to be sturdy – especially considering NCT’s demanding performance schedule.
“It’s a two-month production, so there’s a lot of wear and tear. The trick is to make sure they aren’t too heavy, and they’re indestructible. We used a lot of foam and fabric to achieve the first goal. And although I don’t expect any problems, I’ll be on call during the run for any repairs or upkeep needed.”
Hull says he is especially looking forward to seeing the big musical number “Under the Sea,” which he says includes “a menagerie of creatures.”
“We have all sorts of things planned – there’s jellyfish, blowfish, a stingray and even a whale,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful number, and I can’t wait to see what Ernie does with it all. The cast has been really terrific – totally excited and eager to work with the puppets.”
One of those cast members is NCT favorite James Rudolph, who plays Ariel’s devoted crab-friend Sebastian. Rudolph says that he has long-admired Hull’s designs, and was thrilled to hear that they would be working together on “Mermaid.”
“This is my first time working with puppets, so that’s pretty exciting,” says Rudolph, last seen on NCT’s stage in the enchanting world premiere adaptation of Tuck Everlasting. “But there’s definitely an added pressure when people know the character so well. Everyone loves Sebastian, so expectations are really high. But Ernie and Brian have both been incredibly supportive, and I’m enjoying the whole process.”
Part of that process included taking the puppet home for a few days, just to get acclimated.
“I kept him about a week before rehearsals started, just getting used to having him on my arm,” Rudolph says. “The puppet is specifically fitted for my arm, so it really does feel like a natural extension. But Sebastian has some added features – his claws move, and he has to flutter his eyebrows. It’s sort of like choreography for your hands. It’s definitely challenging – like rubbing your stomach and patting your head. The key is learning to lead with him, to channel my energy through him. But it’s been a lot of fun.”
And perhaps that is what keeps this Nashville native coming back to NCT, season after season.
“This is my eighth production with the Children’s Theatre, and it’s always an amazing experience. The coolest part is that it always feels like family. From my cast mates, to the directors to the folks upstairs, I’ve never been met with anything but love. I think that’s what makes this place so special – it feels like home.”