Christian Probst is a mermaid’s best friend.
by Donalevan Maines
Christian Probst is Flounder, a mermaid’s best friend, in a spiffed-up production of The Little Mermaid playing this month in Houston. But when his agent first suggested the role for him, Probst, who turns 20 in Houston on June 18, says, “I laughed! I said, ‘Isn’t Flounder an eight-year-old boy?’”
Probst began his acting career at age eight in Peter Pan. He’s run the gamut of “young boys in musical theater,” including Chip in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Young Patrick in Mame, Friedrich in The Sound of Music, and Oliver!’s title character.
But having graduated to Tulsa in Gypsy, Princeton in Avenue Q, and Robert in The Drowsy Chaperone, he laughed at the idea of playing an eight-year-old (even opposite buff Broadway star Nick Adams as Prince Eric).
So, yes, his agent explained, Flounder was an eight-year-old boy when the adaptation of the 1989 Disney film made its first splash on Broadway in 2008. But last summer, the adventurous Paper Mill Playhouse (in Millburn, New Jersey) doubled his age, so Flounder would be about as old as Ariel, the heroine. “They thought it would make more sense, instead of him being a little boy following after her.”
Probst auditioned and won the part of Flounder, a role he reprised in Dallas, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh before this Houston gig that will be followed by a run in Atlanta.
Ariel was created in 1837 by Hans Christian Andersen in the classic fairy tale The Story of the Little Mermaid. Some scholars believe Andersen wrote the story as a veiled lament as he prepared to marry a female rather than his beloved “prince,” Edvard Collin. More recently, some authors suggest that Ariel, who dreams of shedding her fins and joining the world above the sea, plays out the quintessential unfolding of gender-identity issues.
In “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid: From Andersen to Disney,” published online in December 2013, Miami University’s Leland G. Spencer wrote:
“Ariel’s interest in humans is revealed in the very scene that introduces Ariel to the audience. Ariel and her friend Flounder are exploring a sunken ship. Ariel is excited to discover a fork: ‘Oh my gosh! Have you ever seen anything so wonderful in your entire life?’ she exclaims. Later, the audience learns that Ariel has an extensive collection of human artifacts: several dishes and pieces of silverware, 20 corkscrews (that she calls ‘‘thing-a-ma-bobs’’), books, a lamp, mirrors, eyeglasses, pocket watches, a framed painting, and even a functioning music box. Many transgender individuals, early in their identity development, seek information and artifacts about the gender with which they relate, and long to dress in clothes considered socially appropriate for that gender [citations omitted]. So too, Ariel collects human artifacts and desires to be ‘part of that world.’”
Probst says, “[Whether] you view it as an analogy to transgender individuals in the world or not, it is still a beautiful story. No one is exactly the same, and that’s what makes the world such a beautiful and different place.”
Probst experienced his own soul-searching as a senior in high school when he came out to his parents, older brother, and older sister. “It was a little difficult at first,” he says. “We are a Roman Catholic family.”
“We’ve come to accept it, somewhat. It’s getting better,” he adds. “You realize that being Catholic—or religious or spiritual—and gay are not mutually exclusive. That is absolutely not true at all.
“You might lose your religion,” says Probst. “I did, but only for a while. If it’s important to you, you can absolutely hold on to it.”
Helping him come to that conclusion were priests and other theology teachers at his Catholic private school, St. Louis University High (SLUH), as well as his especially supportive sister.
Probst is also grateful that he chose wisely by enrolling at Yale rather than a musical-theater conservatory, which seemed a more likely route for his education. “Yale has a great theater program, but it’s not a musical-theater program,” he explains. “So I am on a DIY [track]—a do-it-yourself, make-my-own theater program. Yale has great voice, dance, and theater classes, but I can also take math, writing, reading, Spanish, and other classes. I can talk to friends who are interested in musical theater but who can also talk politics, medicine, and religion. I’m a theater and economics double-major.”
Probst practiced skateboarding for three days in New York City’s Central Park before auditioning for the role of Flounder at Paper Mill Playhouse, because the show’s producers decided that, rather than have actors wear Heelys wheeled footwear (dubbed “merblades”) to give the illusion of fish moving in water, as was done on Broadway, some characters, such as Ariel, would “fly” and the character of Flounder would skateboard.
“My costume has blue fins, and I wiggle my hips, and I’m always doing small body rolls, so we will look like we’re always somewhat in movement, feeling the current of the water,” he explains. “The lighting effects and sound effects also create the underwater world on stage.”
The score features “Under the Sea,” the Academy Award-winning Best Original Song composed by eight-time Academy Award-winner Alan Menken and his longtime collaborator, the late Howard Ashman, as well as “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl,” and new songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. The book for the musical is written by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Doug Wright (who also penned the book for June’s TUTS Underground offering, Hands on a Hard Body, which runs June 12–22 at Zilka Hall in the Hobby Center).
I didn’t tell Probst that Houston’s throwing him a birthday party in the form of the final [email protected] night for the 2013–14 TUTS season. But following the June 19 performance, OutSmart’s TUTS fans are invited to party the night away with the “birthday boy” and fellow members of the cast of The Little Mermaid, including out actor Alan Mingo Jr., who also played Ariel’s crustacean sidekick, Sebastian, on Broadway.
Also, there’s no reason to wait for Christmas in July—like Ariel, you, too, can snag a man in June: just mention “[email protected]” at the Hobby Center’s boutique store for a 20 percent discount on its “merman ornaments.”
What: The Little Mermaid
When: June 13–29
Where: The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Tickets: 713.558.8887 or [email protected]
Donalevan Maines also writes about Southern Baptist Sissies in this issue of OutSmart magazine.