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Photo courtesy of Kimberly Dinsdale

Diego Rodriquez, Griffin Hall, Sequoia Whitten, Kenna Dinsdale and Whitney Bacon (under the table) perform in Tonicism Production's presentation of Disney's "The Little Mermaid Jr." at The Empty Space.

They both learn their lines, hit their marks, rehearse with the cast and hope for the best. But there's one key difference between a star and an understudy:


The star, if she's good, basks in it while the understudy listens wistfully backstage.

But it was the understudy who took her well-deserved bow last weekend at The Empty Space, where the children's theater workshop known as Tonicism mounted a spirited rendition of "The Little Mermaid Jr."

I was there for all three performances to see my daughter, who had a small role in the undersea chorus. But when my eyes weren't on my own child, I, like every other parent in the audience, was captivated by star-in-the-making Sequoia Whitten, who gave a luminous performance in two of the shows after a scheduling conflict and then another mishap sidelined the original Ariel for all but the Saturday performance.

The bright-eyed Whitten, who turned 13 Monday, perfectly captured the restless mermaid's questing spirit and the eternal push-pull of excitement and anxiety that all teens feel at the prospect of venturing out into the world. She even nailed the gangly elegance required to play Ariel, perhaps the most typically adolescent and awkward of all the Disney princesses.

But it was when the young actress sang her show-stopping number, "Part of Your World" -- unleashing a voice soaring and pure -- that she seemed to transcend the rest of the proceedings, prompting a nearby audience member to whisper in disbelief: "She's the understudy?"

And that's nothing against Gigi Killebrew, originally cast as Ariel, who did a fine job herself in the Saturday performance. Other standouts were Lexi Cabral as Ursula and Gracie Darling and Josephine Dethlefson as her minions; Whitney Bacon as Sebastian, Elleigh Davis as Scuttle and in his first stage performance, Diego Rodriguez as Grimsby. That kid has a spark.