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At the Walnut Street Theatre, how do you make human actors look like fish?

Creating costumes for the Little Mermaid at the Walnut Street Theatre: We don’t want them to really look like fish. Fish don’t have wigs for example.

Disney's "The Little Mermaid" at Walnut Street Theatre, with (left to right) Jesse Jones as Jetsam, Diana Huey as Ariel, and Adam Hoyak as Flotsam.
Disney's "The Little Mermaid" at Walnut Street Theatre, with (left to right) Jesse Jones as Jetsam, Diana Huey as Ariel, and Adam Hoyak as Flotsam.Read moreMark Garvin

Every job has its challenges.

Take, for example, Will Vicari and Krystal Balleza’s task at the Walnut Street Theatre, where Disney’s The Little Mermaid is on stage through Jan. 2.

“The immediate challenge is making people look like fish,” said Vicari, who with Balleza, owns The Wig Associates, the Jersey City company that designed the hair and makeup for the production.

“That’s sort of a tricky thing,” he said, “interpreting human actors to look like fish. We don’t want them to really look like fish. Fish don’t have wigs, for example. But we want the overall look to go with the costume and say the creature they are.”

Let’s look at Ursula, the villainous sea witch octopus who strikes a disastrous deal with the lovestruck little mermaid, Ariel.

Vicari and Balleza began by looking at Ursula costumes already in existence from earlier Mermaid productions directed by the same director now helming Walnut’s show, Glenn Casale. That gave them a feel for the look the director wanted to achieve.

To design Ursula’s wig, Vicari and Balleza began by putting something like a bathing cap covered with a plastic bag (more like a plastic hood) on the head of the actor playing Ursula, Rebecca Robbins, a Walnut Street Theatre favorite. Vicari and Balleza covered the bag with tape to create a model of her head, taking measurements to fully customize it. “That’s the nitty gritty that’s not super creative,” Vicari said.

Back in Jersey City, they used chicken wire overlaid with tulle, a lightweight, very fine, stiff netting, to begin to construct the wig’s frame, leaving enough room inside it for a microphone and transmitter.

The animators who drew Disney’s The Little Mermaid created Ursula so she towered over young Ariel. But on stage, Vicari said, the actors are generally close in height.

Luckily, Ariel, played by Diana Huey who took on the role in Broadway touring productions, is petite, Vicari said. Even so, it was up to Balleza and Vicari (along with some shoe lifts) to make Robbins/Ursula look bigger and meaner than Ariel. The wig towers a foot and half over Robbins’ head — a big structure, but one that weighs well under a pound.

“We gave her silver hair with streaks of deep purple and some tinsel” so it catches the lights on stage, Vicari said. “We gave her a widow’s peak to make her even more evil and witchy.”

Of course, wigs and makeup communicate character to the audience, but backstage, they also contribute to the actor’s transformation into the role. Robbins, Vicari said, is a “very sweet-looking strawberry redhead opera singer” who needed to be transformed into a villain.

“That’s the fun of it,” Vicari said. “How do we help them in their mirror in the dressing room become this character that they are playing?”

In the rehearsals leading up to opening night, Vicari and Balleza brought their wig creations to the theater along with their ideas for makeup. The makeup was a collaborative process, with everyone contributing their thoughts. The actors needed to be trained in how to apply the makeup.

“It can be incredibly daunting. Some actresses are very good with it and enjoy it,” Vicari said. “Rebecca would not be shy about admitting that it was a learning curve” for her.

The final step was working with the theater’s in-house makeup and costume staff who will oversee the makeup process and maintain the wigs for each performance.

Vicari said that when it comes to Ursula, he’s especially proud of the skin treatment designed by his partner, Balleza.

“The skin is like an iridescent purple, which sounds crazy,” Vicari said. “It’s a blend of a purple makeup and a foundation that’s close to her actual skin color. The entire thing is set with this shimmery powder. When she moves in the lights, she always looks damp and underwater. Her skin is very smooth and shimmery looking. That’s something we worked hard at, making it look less like powdery theater makeup and more like the skin of an octopus.”

Vicari and Balleza did the wigs for Walnut’s recent production of Beehive – The ‘60s Musical, in which six women play a myriad of roles celebrating the era’s powerful female voices. “Six women, 36 wigs,” Vicari said.

Vicari and Balleza are on tap next for the Walnut production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (Jan. 11-Feb. 13). “We get to do a couple of ghosts,” Vicari said. “That’ll be fun.”

Through Jan. 2 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. For tickets and information, 215-574-3550, Masks required. Proof of vaccination required for those 12 and older. Those age 5-11 must have one dose of a vaccine or show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Those under 5 must also show proof of a recent negative COVID test.

Gathering back on stage in Norristown

It’s been months since Norristown’s Theatre Horizon turned on the stage lights and opened its doors. Time to celebrate, says artistic director Nell Bang-Jensen. For Holiday Spectacular: A Celebration of Gathering, Bang-Jensen assembled a host of Theatre Horizon favorites — among them Brett Robinson, Alex Bechtel, Suli Holum, Steve Pacek, Pax Ressler, Jenn Rose, and Andrea Lamy, who is making a special guest appearance from Horizon’s Art Houses digital program.

“Our holiday celebration will bring audiences back to Theatre Horizon to celebrate the community and a world in which we can gather once more. Brett, Alex, and I have been having so much fun creating the script for the show. We’re leaning into the silliness inspired by the season and can’t wait to laugh with you,” Bang-Jensen said.

Dec. 10-12 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. Masks and vaccination proof required. For tickets and information, 610-283-2230 or

Little Women at Quintessence

Marielle Issa won’t have much of a commute from her home in Chestnut Hill to Quintessence Theatre in neighboring Mount Airy, where she’ll take on the starring role of Jo in Little Women: The Broadway Musical opening Dec. 1. The musical, based on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic, heralds Quintessence Theatre Group’s post-pandemic return to in-person theater and continues its eight-year tradition of presenting classics for the whole family during the holidays.

Many of us know (and love) the story of the four March sisters and how each, including aspiring writer Jo March, works to find her place in the world. The musical, with book by Allan Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and music by Jason Howland, is directed by Hassan Al Rawas, with musical direction by Christopher Ertelt. Last year, Al Rawas directed Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm at Quintessence, part of the company’s digital Shout Into the Void play reading series.

Through Dec. 30 at Quintessence Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia. For tickets and information, 215-987-4450 or Masks and vaccination proof required.

A Revolutionary Romp at Stagecrafters

In Chestnut Hill, The Stagecrafters Theater is fomenting revolution (yes, even in Chestnut Hill), with The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. Says Marie Antoinette in this raucous comedy about the French Reign of Terror: “Sometimes a revolution needs a woman’s touch.”

Through Dec. 12 at the Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia. For tickets and information, call 215 247 8813 or Masks and proof of vaccination required.

Shooting Stars in Upper Darby

Back on stage after a pandemic hiatus is the Upper Darby Summer Stage Shooting Stars Holiday Spectacular with two shows this weekend. Producing it is the same vibrant Upper Darby theater organization that has become a home for so many creative young people — from middle school to graduate school. (Tina Fey and Monica Horan-Rosenthal, from Everybody Loves Raymond, are among an illustrious list of alums.)

Dec. 3 and 4, Upper Darby Performing Arts Center, 601 N. Lansdowne Ave., Drexel Hill. For tickets,

Support for caregivers

The show must go on. That’s the oft-quoted adage in the world of theater. And yes, it does, often bravely, but behind the applause, lights, and makeup are people who walk off the stage and go home to take care of children. Helping artists cope is the Parent Artist Advocacy League, a national organization that serves as a resource hub for caregivers in the performing arts. Its annual summit, Centering Humanity, which runs virtually Dec. 1 through Dec. 3, will feature three Philadelphia artists presenting as part of the summit’s opening keynote panel. They are LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia and Theatre in the X; Noelle Diane Johnson, stage manager and artist advocate at Wilma Theater, InterAct Theatre Co., and others; and Tamanya Garza, a director and producer who has worked at Philadelphia Theatre Co., Simpatico Theatre Co., and others.