Swimming with big fish

The award-winning composer of 'Avenue Q' and his wife dive into a musical-stage version of 'Finding Nemo' at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

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Imagine you're a struggling young musical-theater writer, and you manage to get your show produced in a real off-Broadway theater. Then, before you know it, you're on Broadway, you've won a Tony Award, and someone is offering you just about everything you can imagine to write a new show.

It sounds like a dream, or maybe a Disney fairy tale.

In fact, Bobby Lopez and his wife and co-writer, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are living in a Disney universe right now, where they have written a musical-theater version of Finding Nemo for Animal Kingdom.

"Finding Nemo -- The Musical," which has been in public previews since Nov. 5, will be given a grand opening Jan. 24.

"This has been a dream for us," Anderson-Lopez says. "The sky's the limit."

She and her husband, the Tony-winning composer for Broadway's long-running puppet musical, Avenue Q, are just two of the theater luminaries Disney has hired for "Nemo." Also included are the artistic director of a Tony Award-winning regional theater, the Tony-nominated choreographer of Urinetown and the co-creator of the puppets and masks for The Lion King.

All of them, and others like them, are working together to make a 30-minute musical out of a cartoon.

"I can give artists resources to create on a scale they have never dreamed of," says Anne Hamburger, who is executive vice president of creative entertainment for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. "Not only is that great for Disney, it's great for them."

A test swim for audience

At Theater in the Wild, the 1,500-seat hall that has been newly enclosed and updated for "Nemo," director Peter Brosius mounts the stage. Animal Kingdom visitors have filled in just about all of the long benches in the expansive theater on a Monday this month, the second day of open dress rehearsals.

A row of makeshift tables lines the back of the theater, and members of the "Nemo" creative team are hunkering down there to work out the bugs.

"In the theater business, this is called a preview," says Brosius, who is artistic director of the Tony-winning Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis. "You're among the first people on the planet to see the show."

He turns the stage over to the fantastical puppets and the 18 actors who make up the cast -- performers dressed like giant heads of coral, the 22-foot-tall head and neck of Nigel the pelican, an actor on a bicycle contraption supporting the hefty puppet Mr. Ray like a giant umbrella above his head.

The show's three main characters -- Marlin, the father fish; Nemo, his kidnapped son; and Dory, their addlebrained friend -- are all played by actors holding large fish puppets whose eyes and mouths are controlled by levers in the actors' hands. When Marlin and Dory soar up through the ocean waters, during a song called "Just Keep Swimming," the actors and their puppets actually fly across the stage like Peter Pan and Wendy.

Throughout the 30-minute show, the new songs move the story along.

"We know that fish are friends, not food," sings a little band of conflicted sharks. An orchestration that sounds remarkably like the Beach Boys powers the song "Go With the Flow."

At the end, a profusion of bubbles falls from on high, and a little girl in the audience tries to catch them in her hand.

Immersed in their work

Hamburger, the Disney exec who is supervising the project, also oversaw a stage show based on the movie Aladdin at Disney's California Adventure theme park in Anaheim.

Her roots, however, are in New York theater. For 13 years she ran a highly praised experimental company called En Garde Arts, which became known for presenting theater in such nontraditional sites as a pier on the Hudson River and four blocks in the meatpacking district. One of the company's goals was to bring theater to those who had never seen it.

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