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Viterbo Grad Excited but Nervous to Stand in for Lead Role in Broadway’s ‘The Little Mermaid’

June 17, 2008

By Terry Rindfleisch, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jun. 17–Arbender “Dell” Robinson watches the prince out of the corner of his eye when he sings and dances almost every night in Disney’s new Broadway musical “The Little Mermaid.” The 30-year-old Robinson, a 1998 Viterbo University graduate, is a member of the original cast of “The Little Mermaid,” playing various ensemble roles since it opened Jan. 10 on Broadway.

He also has been the understudy for Prince Eric, waiting for his chance to go on stage as the male lead.

Well, the Tony Awards are done and gone, and Prince Eric is taking a short vacation.

So Robinson is getting his chance to play the lead role. On June 27, Robinson will be transformed into a prince for four performances in three days.

“It’s amazing, I can’t believe it,” Robinson said in a recent telephone interview. “But I’m also worried. I’m a black prince in a Disney show, and I don’t know how people will feel about that.

“I’m nervous about how the audiences will respond to me,” he said.

Robinson has been rehearsing as the prince every other week and now once a week.

“But this is the first time I’ll be wearing any of those costumes with others on stage,” he said. “The prince has this one song, and I have never done it with another human.”

Robinson said he has friends and family members coming to see him on his opening night, but he doesn’t want his parents from the Chicago area to see him the first night.

He asked his parents to stay away in his Broadway debut in “Hairspray,” but they came on opening night anyway and didn’t tell him.

“I’m going to be nervous enough on that first night,” Robinson said. “My parents and the critics can see me, but just not on opening night.” For two years, Robinson appeared in “Hairspray” and was the principal understudy for Seaweed, one of the show’s lead characters. Toward the end of his stint, he played Seaweed continuously.

Robinson had auditioned for the role of Sebastian, the delightfully funny crab in “Little Mermaid,” but the musical’s director tabbed him as the understudy for Prince Eric.

“I said, ‘You got to be kidding and out of your mind,’” Robinson said. “I told the director, ‘This is a Disney show, and you want a black man on stage as the lead?’”

Robinson said he asked why him, and the director told him she liked his work and wanted to develop him as a leading man.

“She said race is not a consideration because she is trying to make a world of all shapes, sizes and colors for this show,” he said. “I think it is a huge risk for Disney, but I was excited and nervous at the same time.”

Robinson talked about the show and his Broadway experience.

How is “Little Mermaid” doing at the box office and with audiences?

We’re selling amazingly well, in the top five of Broadway shows. The audiences love the show. We’re at the point of replacing people after the Tonys, and I hate to see some people go. The reviews have been mixed but have not affected us at all.

What’s the best thing about being in this Broadway show?

Besides a paycheck, for me, it’s really cool to be in an original Broadway show. I just renewed with the show through September, and my initial goal was to be in the show through the end of the year. We’ll have to see if I extend my contract past September.

What’s your favorite role in the show?

I’m the featured seagull in the beginning of the show.

How are you doing with the Broadway regimen?

I do eight shows a week, and there are days I feel like it’s a lot of work. It clearly is a job, but how can I complain — it’s a job in a Broadway show.

Are you still auditioning for other shows?

I’m auditioning all the time. Now that I’ve been in two Broadway shows, the casting director calls me directly. After “Little Mermaid,” I think the next step for me is film and television.

Terry Rindfleisch can be reached at trindfleisch@

lacrossetribune.com or

(608) 791-8227.

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