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Cast members who "fly" and "swim," a calypso crab and an evil octopus, mermaids and a prince, "Under the Sea" and above the ground, all accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra. "Disney's The Little Mermaid" is the biggest show at Missoula Community Theater in some time, according to artistic director Joe Martinez.

All these colorful elements, cast members, creative costuming and sets go into bringing Disney's beloved cartoon into the real world.

"You can't put an animated film on stage — you have to make it your own," Martinez said.

The film was adapted into a musical that had a long run on Broadway. Martinez said the adaptation doesn't reproduce the film word for word, but the story remains the same: A mermaid named Ariel trades her voice (and tail) for legs so she can pursue life (and a Prince) on land.

It retains the songs by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken that audiences expect ("Under the Sea," "Part of Your World) while adding new material. Martinez said the musical adaptation stitches in new songs, a more in-depth backstory for the villain, Ursula, and new characters.

The MCT shop designs all the costumes and sets, and had to figure out how to make mermaid and crab outfits that the cast can dance in, with choreography by Heather Adams of the Downtown Dance Collective.

"I'm fortunate that I'm surrounded by a group of really talented artists here in Missoula that work at MCT that design and build beautiful sets and costumes and paint them. They have a vision and they bring it together," Martinez said.

Like all community shows, the cast comprises volunteers — some 45 including adults and children who have put in three and a half hour rehearsals each night to prepare.

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The role of Ariel is played by Ella McMillion, a student at Loyola Sacred Heart High School.

Martinez said she brings a sweetness, naivety to the character, but also a strength.

Typically, roles end up going to an actor older than the character, but Martinez said McMillion, 17, had the voice and dance experience that was right for the part.

McMillion started with MCT 10 years ago in "A Christmas Carol: The Musical." She prefers musicals, and has subsequently acted in "Miracle on 34th Street," "Mary Poppins," "Tarzan," "Wizard of Oz," "Mamma Mia" and "A Christmas Carol" again this last year. She didn't audition expecting to get the role but has felt "elated" since. "Magical is really the only word I can use to describe the experience," she said.

Martinez said in this particular show, she's been a great leader and a great role model for the younger kids — there are 12 in the ensemble.

To get ready for the role, she said she re-read Hans Christian Andersen's original version.

"It's such an iconic story, but at the same time, there's so many interpretations of it," she said. She kept a character journal and gathered as many images as she could to find her own take.

McMillion, who wants to study theater in college, said she's trying to get into the "Whole New World" mind-set. "Ariel is such a curious character and such a dreamer, and that's what makes her special."

To create the effect of someone swimming (or flying), MCT hired ZFX Flying Effects of Louisville, Kentucky, who sent technicians to Missoula for two days to set up the ropes and train the local volunteer "flight technicians" who operate them backstage.

McMillion, who spends much of the show gliding around on roller sneakers under the mermaid tail, will go airborne during "Part of Your World," one of her four big solo numbers.

Cast opposite of McMillion as the prince is Dexter Reh, who has a strong dance background, having performed in the annual "Nutcracker" productions by the Garden City Ballet. That will come to the fore in a new dance number, "One Step Closer," Martinez said.

Kirsten Paisley, who had a role as the title character's mom in MCT's "Tarzan," has traded in the "sweet loving mom for the villain of the sea," Martinez said.

He said she's bringing her own manipulative and sinister interpretation of the character.

Part of the balance in these productions for him and the MCT crew is to present a story that people are familiar with in their own way, not Disney's, he said.

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