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Local actress thrilled to swim across the stage as mermaid Ariel

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When Colleen Furlan read the email from Rainbow Stage last December informing her she had been cast as Ariel in this summer's Disney's The Little Mermaid, she let loose with a silent scream of elation.

The 21-year-old University of Manitoba vocal performance student was seated in her parked car and immediately dialed her mother to announce the good news.

"I was kind of in hysterics," says the Charleswood resident. "My mother thought I had been in a car accident, so then she was in hysterics and was getting on her coat to get me."

The night before the two had witnessed a big smash-up on Pembina Highway that only exacerbated mom's fear of her daughter driving by herself.

"My mother yelled at my stepdad that Colleen had hit someone and something about Ariel," recalls Furlan. "And my stepdad says, 'She hit Ariel?'

"Finally there was a bit of a break and I said, 'No, I got Ariel in The Little Mermaid.'"

Not even that hilarious miscommunication could ruin Furlan's moment.

Rainbow Stage had auditioned dozens of wannabe Ariels from all over Canada, but city director Ann Hodges plunged deep into the city's acting pool to find her sea siren. Furlan is no big fish in musical theatre -- her experience amounts to minnow roles in Fiddler on the Roof at Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2008 and Mary Poppins at Rainbow last August. The only time she played a principal role was in her 2011 graduating year at Balmoral Hall School, where she played the male lead Jean Valjean in an all-girls student production of Les Misérables.

Still, that famous fin fits Furlan. She first saw the Disney animated classic as a preschooler and proclaimed Ariel as her FPF, favourite princess forever. When the dark-haired soprano started taking singing lessons at the age of six, the first song Furlan learned was Ariel's showstopper Part of Your World. And for years she's been rehearsing like many other Ariels-in-waiting in front of the mirror at home.

Furlan's casting gains her access for the first time to the Rainbow dressing room for female principal actors. Its decor is hardly luxurious; its most striking feature has to do with the little-known Rainbow tradition of leading ladies scrawling their names on the walls. It's another way for them to leave their mark on the theatre, since a record of their stage work is so ephemeral.

 

Furlan's name will soon join the likes of Winnipeg female musical stars like Jennifer Lyon, Mairi Babb and Samantha Hill, currently on Broadway in Les Misérables. Will she follow in their impressive footsteps?

The actress did finish in the top four in the Andrew Lloyd Webber's 2012 cross-country search for a Dorothy in the CBC-TV reality show Over the Rainbow, so she can sing beautifully; she was also once a highly successful highland dancer.

"I feel like I'm seeing a great Canadian actress at the very beginning of her career," says Hodges, who has a keen eye for scouting stage talent. "I remember those photos of theatre legends like Evie Anderson and Martha Henry when they were very young. I feel that's who we are seeing on our stage. She's going places."

 

As any little girl will tell you from endless viewings of the iconic 1989 animated fantasy movie, The Little Mermaid is an under-the-sea musical spectacular about Ariel, a beautiful mermaid who longs to leave her ocean home and swap her tail for a pair of legs.

 

Disney attempted to cash in with a stage version on Broadway in 2008, in which Ariel was a pouty teen with daddy issues. To simulate underwater movement the actors wore Heelys wheeled footwear, dubbed "merblades," but the production failed to captivate audiences and underperformed at the box office, closing after 685 performances without a national tour.

A reimagined, reworked Little Mermaid made a big splash at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey last year with its portrayal of Ariel and the prince as freedom-seeking misfits, rebelling against the rigidity of their worlds. Rainbow is reviving this version.

"Ariel goes to the surface, falls in love with the prince and must find a way to save them both," says Hodges, who last helmed Mary Poppins at Rainbow. "The message is that they can create their own destinies and be themselves."

The Heelys have been ditched in favour of sending Ariel flying against a backdrop of the sea to replicate swimming. It's more of an old-fashioned approach that suits the material based on the 1836 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

"At moments of great excitement and characters going through something big in their lives, they need to swim," Hodges says.

Swimming was part of Furlan's preparation for Ariel. Shortly after she was cast, her family went to Mexico during reading week and she was told by mom to jump in the water and act like a mermaid. She also studied the animated movie for her character's mannerisms and endless pluckiness.

"Ariel desires things and goes for them," Furlan says. "That's what I did. I'm definitely hoping this part is a starting point and not a one-off thing. It's what I want to do with my career."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2014 C1

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Updated on Tuesday, August 12, 2014 at 7:07 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

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