19-year-old Morgan Kirner goes under the sea for 'Disney's The Little Mermaid'

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Morgan Kirner's meteoric year began with winning Paper Mill Playhouse's Rising Star Award, an honor that sent the bubbly New Jersey teen to the 2012 National High School Musical Theater Awards in New York. She won the Spirit of the Jimmy honor there while working with Van Kaplan and the rest of the Pittsburgh CLO team that produces the Tonys-style show on Broadway.

From New York to Pittsburgh in a flash ... she is seated in a conference room at the Benedum Center, hours before showtime, her eyes wide with amazement at the turn of events. The high-schooler who was overwhelmed during auditions before heading to The Boston Conservatory can be seen onstage in the mini-touring company of "Disney's The Little Mermaid." At 19, she's an ensemble member -- the mer-sister in pink -- and understudy to Jessica Grove, who plays Ariel in the production. The play that began at Paper Mill is at CLO through Sunday, before finishing up the summer tour at Kansas City Starlight.

"It's exciting to know that people you look up to, now you're working with on a professional level," Ms. Kirner said. "That's amazing and very, very humbling, because it's beyond my wildest dreams to be here, and to be here now, and in this show. It's a show that I had seen advertised for a year prior, thinking, 'Wow, I love that show. I hope I can see it. Maybe somebody I know will be in it.' "

Her look throughout a half-hour conversation often leaned toward, "Can you believe it?"

She and Christian Probst, who plays Flounder, are the youngest members of a cast that includes Broadway veterans such as Nick Adams, the Prince Eric of the company who was a mentor during her week in New York for the Jimmys. Ms. Kirner appreciates that no one in the company babies her, and they also understand the excitement of a musical theater actor's first professional experience.

The youngster marvels that she is often side by side with people who, until recently, she had known only from the distance of audience member to performer.

"I have found so much satisfaction in being in the ensemble, because I was never a dancer," she said. "It's really exciting to be next to Erica Mansfield, who I saw perform in 'How to Succeed' [on Broadway], and said, 'Look at the person dance! I will never be able to get my leg that high.' And Lisa Karlin, who I saw in 'Addams Family.' I could name shows I've seen most of the cast in, and to be in an ensemble now with people who I look up to and respect ... it's surreal, something I never dreamed I would do."

Ms. Kirner wasn't born when the 1989 animated Disney film "The Little Mermaid" was released, and she admitted that it was another animated heroine who first captured her imagination.

"I got more swept up in the Belle revolution," she said of the beauty in "Beauty and the Beast." She said it almost apologetically, then added, "I mean, I'm a Disney princess fiend. I went to Disney World on a choir trip last year, and at that time, one of my good friends and I were all about Ariel, and we were totally bummed we didn't get to go on the Magic Kingdom ride [that opened in late 2012.]"

Further adventures with "The Little Mermaid" came when she caught the musical on Broadway as a seventh-grader. Ms. Kirner was mesmerized by the New York star, Sierra Boggess, and from her seat way in the back, where "I could touch the light board," the effect that stayed with her was of Ariel's transformation from undersea mermaid to legged human, kicking for the surface.

While Broadway made rare use of wire works to simulate floating, as it did in that scene, the swimming mer-people and flying seagull Scuttle are often airborne in the CLO show. The undersea creatures constantly move their arms and legs, even while hanging high above the stage and belting out award-winning songs composed by Alan Menken.

With the help of flight choreographer Paul Rubin and director Glenn Casale, Ms. Kirner has taken to "The Mermaid" version of flight like a fish to, well, you know.

"It kind of is addicting; I really love flying," she said. "In a way, you give over control, because it's automated in this production. But at the same time ... like, when Glenn was talking about the flying, because he worked so extensively on 'Peter Pan,' he was saying Cathy Rigby would say, 'No, I need to control the flight. I need to be the one deciding when to fly.' That stuck with me. It made the thought process easier ... so if you go with that idea after you wiggle around in the harness and figure out what it feels like, it becomes second nature almost."

Ms. Kirner will return to Boston Conservatory after her "Under the Sea" adventure, leaving behind a quickly formed, quickly dispersed road family. The idea of bringing the Broadway experience to parts of the country that may never get to New York hadn't occurred to her, but she was humbled by the thought.

"I can say this from a student's point of view and a professional's -- wow, that's weird -- that theater and all arts open up a different part of you, almost like a sixth sense," she said. "It speaks to people in a way that normal conversation can't. If I can be a part of that by working at these beautiful amazing theaters, than I am all in. That's a career that's not like work. I feel like I'm on an extended vacation and I happen to be doing a show every night. I'm so lucky."

Remaining performances of "Disney's The Little Mermaid" are 1 and 8 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Benedum Center. Tickets: $10-$70.75; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published July 18, 2013 4:00 AM


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