When champion ice skater Michelle Kwan announced that she was going to dance to music from The Little Mermaid for a television special, her costume designer, Scott Lane, nearly busted a gill. Now he had to design Kwan her own fish costume--after having just spent nine months in an underwater Nerf land, fashioning scores of foam-rubber starfish and mechanized flippers for Disney's Little Mermaid on Ice.
"It was outrageous," he says of his Disney assignment. "How do you create fish that people can ice skate in? Ice skating is so athletic--it's even harder to design for than dance. The movements are so stressful and forceful, and you have wind resistance."
Lane got the job done, however, and his handiwork arrives for inspection at Gund Arena this Tuesday. The Disney on Ice crew will anchor there for a week of fairy-tale fantasizing, with the help of a Jamaican-inflected crustacean, a sputtering seagull, and kicky song-and-dance numbers.
The petite skater in the towering wig, shivering under the icicled rafters, will be Russian skater Inna Volianskai, who plays Ariel, the animated film's sixteen-year-old bride/mermaid.
"She can get cold," Lane says of Volianskai. "Especially when she has to stand around a lot." At smaller arenas with lower ceilings, things can get really icy, notes Lane--"and she's not wearing much the whole show." Though still arctic, Gund is one of the larger venues on the tour.
In the film version, the near-anorexic Ariel prances around the coral reef in a purple bra. Dad, the king of the sea, obviously has been wolfing down the steroids, his bulging biceps outdone only by his prominent nipples. As in many fairy tales (and Disney films), mom is not in the picture. But there is a wicked witch--this time, a half-human, half-octopus named Ursula, who looks suspiciously like the late transvestite Divine--acting as the adult female surrogate.
If Ariel's mother was around, she'd probably say something along the lines of, "You march right back to your room, young lady, and put some clothes on."
For the undersea ice scenes, Volianskai does get to wear a flesh-colored fishnet shirt with her bra. And her floor-length mermaid tail is a real treat compared to the seaweed miniskirt she wears when she grows legs. But her big hair sees her through. "Her hair is probably the warmest--the big wig," observes Lane, adding that Volianskai actually performs one number in her bare feet.
There are other pitfalls for a costume designer. Beaded costumes are especially treacherous--a stray rhinestone or thread that falls on the ice can send a skater sailing into the Plexiglas. Lane says the evil Ursula costume (held in place with a sixty-pound harness) is probably one of the toughest to maneuver. "It has a solid foam upper body, which sort of deadens his movement," he notes, referring to the anonymous male skater who plays Ursula. "We basically turned him into a human puppet. We flew him to New York about half a dozen times, and made lots of subtle modifications.
"But the little girl who plays Flounder, she'll say hers is the hardest. She doesn't have any arms. It involves not only being a trained ice skater and having to turn and spin, but she has to be puppeteering the face while she's in there."
Lane's toughest critics aren't the skaters, though. He recalls adding some bubbles to a headdress on what the staff calls "the Carmen Miranda fish" after a child complained that the minor character hadn't been made true to the movie: "Kids are like, 'His eyes aren't there! His eyes are farther back!'"
Lane says he's seen the movie about 75 times, more than a few in slow motion, just to make sure he's keeping up. "The children that come to see these shows, they watch these videos over and over," he says. "They want it to be exactly the way it was in the movie--even more than the studio does."
Disney on Ice: The Little Mermaid opens Tuesday, January 12, with a 7:30 p.m. performance. Tickets are $11.50, $14.50, and $17.50, available by calling 216-241-5555. The show runs through January 18 at Gund Arena, 100 Gateway Plaza.