The theater has been building a reputation for diverse casting. Artistic director Bill Berry says there’s been a little blowback, but that it’s of no concern.
When Diana Huey got called to audition for a part in 5th Avenue Theatre’s holiday production of “The Little Mermaid,” she thought it was a joke.
“I laughed and asked, ‘Who?’ ”
Ariel. The Disney mermaid who hoards silverware, pines for a landlubbing prince and sings about wanting to be “part of your world.”
Blue eyes. Redhead. White.
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“Hello,” Huey remembers saying to one of the casting agents. “They know I’m Asian, right?”
They knew. But what Huey didn’t know is that the 5th Avenue Theatre has been building a reputation for being colorblind when it comes to casting.
“It was an issue for one second,” producing artistic director Bill Berry said of casting Huey as Ariel. “Is she good? Yes. Can she sing it? Yes. Why would we not cast her?
“We have an African-American man playing a crab,” he said. “Are crabs African-American? I don’t know. The whole story is a theatrical rendition of a cartoon.”
There was some blowback when the theater announced “The Little Mermaid” cast. One women wrote on the theater’s Facebook page, questioning Huey as Ariel: “Keep it classic.” (She later took the post down.)
“People see color, and it can be a negative or positive,” Berry said. “We have prioritized being open to many possibilities. Let’s just be open to people who live in Seattle and representing our community.
“That’s how we approach casting. Everyone comes to the theater and sees themselves.”
It goes as far back as the 5th’s 2011 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” The lead character was not blonde and blue-eyed, but Jennifer Paz, a Filipina. Prince Charming was played by Brandon O’Neill, who is half-Filipino. The Queen was played by Cynthia Jones, an African American. And her husband, the King, was played by Allen Fitzpatrick, who is white.
In last year’s production of “Grease,” Sandy (played by Olivia Newton-John in the 1978 movie) was portrayed by Solea Pfeiffer, who is of mixed race. Teen Angel was played by Kyle Robert Carter, who is African American.
Berry remembered seeing “Hamilton,” a blockbuster in which almost all of the actors — save for the King of England — were African American or Latino.
“The people they are playing were not African American or Latino,” Berry said. “Does that devalue them? No. An African-American man comes out and says, ‘I’m George Washington,’ and I thought, ‘You’re George Washington? OK. I’m in.’ ”
It’s the same with the little girls who have come to “Cinderella,” and will come to “The Little Mermaid,” he said.
“Most little girls say, ‘OK,’ because the princess is pretty.”
Huey, 30, grew up in Mukilteo and studied at Cornish College for the Arts. When she was young, she went to all kinds of Seattle productions: “Madame Butterfly” at Seattle Opera and shows at the Seattle Children’s Theatre and Village Theatres. She also watched a lot of Disney movies and longed to be a princess.
She was excited to see an Asian female lead in “Mulan” but was disappointed that she wasn’t feminine enough.
“She joined the army,” Huey said. “I remember being not as satisfied.”
But Ariel, well, she was her favorite: “She was willing to give up everything to take this chance,” she said. “It didn’t matter that she didn’t look like me.”
To play her, Huey will wear a custom wig — a bright-red one.
“I love it,” she said. “The wig is beautiful, with slightly darker roots at the top. I look like I could actually have red hair. It looks strangely natural.”
She remembered waiting to audition and saying to a crew member that there was no way she was going to get the part.
“Why can’t it be you?” he asked her. “She’s a mermaid. She’s made up anyway.”
Huey couldn’t argue. “So let’s just go in and have fun, sing ‘Part of Your World’ and look like we’re swimming.”
When her agent called to say she had gotten the part, Huey was in disbelief.
“I stereotyped myself in my own head,” she said. “I figured people wouldn’t want to go that far out of the box for a holiday show.”
In the end, though, it’s a perfect holiday show about the importance of family and dreams — and having enough silverware.
“These are universal stories,” Berry said. “They appeal to all of us.
“And to me, that’s theater.”
This article was corrected on Nov. 29. In an earlier version, two names were misspelled: Brandon O’Neill and Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers & Hammerstein).