While Emily Winn is only a high school freshman, she’s already a superstar and making a big splash.

At Davenport Central, she’s the luminous, feisty title character in the beloved Disney musical, “The Little Mermaid,” which opens Thursday, April 21, at the school’s Performing Arts Center, 1120 Main St. Performances are 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.

“I don’t cast by grade – I cast by a square peg in a square hole, if they fit,” drama director Thea IntVeld said of Emily earlier this week. “The kids didn’t mind – they know she was perfect for that part. It was pretty obvious, she just sounds like Ariel.”

Thea IntVeld, director of “The Little Mermaid,” in the Central Performing Arts Center lobby (photo by Jonathan Turner).

For “Little Mermaid” (originally a 1989 animated film with songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman), she had a huge turnout for auditions, and didn’t want to cast based on student color, year, or size.

“Because we had such a gap, I really didn’t know that many,” IntVeld said of not having a show in 2020, and a non-musical in 2021 (the fall 2021 mainstage show was “Dracula”). “I had a clean slate.”

She had no idea Emily was a freshman, but she was ideal for the red-wigged Ariel. The cast of 40 is about half from Central’s two show choirs, and several who have never acted or sung on stage before.

“Most of them are brand new, so I’ve been very calm and patient with them,” IntVeld said, noting there are very few seniors in the show.

“Actually being in show choir was awesome and I had a great experience,” Emily said of being in the junior varsity group, Blue Vibrations. They started camp last June, and rehearsed weekly until competitions started in February.

Davenport Central’s “Little Mermaid” features Emily Winn, left, Jillian Darland, Mia Roland, and Gage McCalester (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Emily got to sing solo in a mashup of two songs from “Ragtime.” She won one best soloist award. A Quad City Music Guild veteran, she’s seemingly ticking off every major red-haired role on stage — previously playing the perky title orphan in “Annie” (2017 holiday season) and the young Fiona in “Shrek the Musical” (August 2018).

Loving the belting roles

Emily said she didn’t grow up dreaming of being Ariel. “I’m not a soprano at all,” she said. “I’m definitely a belter and I’ve always wanted to be a belter. Ariel isn’t my dream princess role.”

Emily Winn, a freshman at Central, has made a specialty of playing red-haired musical heroines (photo by Jonathan Turner).

She’d love to play Anna from “Frozen,” and Rapunzel if “Tangled” ever became a stage musical. (Coincidentally, Anna is another redhead heroine.)

“I’ve always wanted to be a belter and Ariel is really fun,” Emily said. “I was raised in musical theater.”

She has to work to hit high notes, and her mom has told her she notices it shows on Emily’s face when she sings in her head voice, since she hates it. Her mom, Jenny Winn, has a super long list of QC musical theater credits – including playing iconic roles of Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” and Maria in “The Sound of Music” at Music Guild.

A short clip from Emily Winn singing in “The Little Mermaid” at Davenport Central.

“I do love the acting,” Emily said, noting her co-star Kylen Phillips as Sebastian. “Because being a freshman, I’ve known Kylen since I was like 11, and some others. I’ve admired them a lot and seen them in show choir.”

She also loves having an audience, and getting to hear people’s reactions.

Emily studies voice privately with Megan Warren (of Double Threat Studios, who was adult Fiona in Guild’s “Shrek”), and also gets input from her older sister Anna, a sophomore at Augustana College who’s studying to be a choral director.

Emily Winn (who starred in “Annie” at Music Guild in 2017) in Central’s “The Little Mermaid.”

“She has to teach voice lessons for somebody, for half an hour a week, so I’m her student,” Emily said. She credited some of her talent to her mom and sister.

“I grew up at Music Guild, waiting until I turned 8 so I could audition for shows,” she said. Emily said her favorite role Jenny did was in Spotlight’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” in February 2019.

She saw the Bettendorf High “Little Mermaid,” done earlier this month, but said it didn’t influence her performance. “It scared me a little bit, but just made me work harder,” Emily said.

Another show choir veteran

Senior Kylen Phillips plays Sebastian the crab in Central’s production, and is in the varsity show choir, Central Singers, Inc. He has played clarinet for “Heathers,” and was on stage in “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Kylen Phillips is Sebastian, with Emily Winn as Ariel (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“That’s why I’m here again, because I liked that experience,” Kylen said Monday. He doesn’t feel that different from Sebastian.

“I want to look out for everybody, instead of just focusing one thing,” he said. “I feel like I get to show a different side of myself. I used to just sing when I was acting, but now I can just act and people can see my emotion on stage. It’s something besides singing, and I like that.”

Kylen said he enjoys musicals most for putting it all together and seeing its final product.

“Throughout these months of working, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and have, but I love that feeling of having this group of people that’s like family,” he said. “We got it done, we did it. I love it. I like the connections we make.”

Jenna VanHoosier as Ursula and Emily Winn as Ariel in the new Central show (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“You get to learn from other people, who are really good actors,” Kylen said. “Emily, she’s a very good actor. I don’t act that much. I’m more just a singer and watching her on stage, it’s inspiring. Like I can get there one of these days – and she’s even younger than me.”

From “Next to Normal” to anything but normal

IntVeld directed the Pulitzer-winning musical “Next to Normal” as the first show in the new Performing Arts Center in fall 2017, then “Heathers” in 2018, “Spelling Bee” in 2019, and a filmed version of “Clue” at Renwick Mansion in early 2021. Central was supposed to do “Anything Goes” in spring 2020.

Central’s auditorium (on the south side of the school at 1120 Main St.) opened in May 2017, part of a $28-million, 62,409-square-foot addition, which includes a new swimming pool. The theater’s seating capacity is 893, and IntVeld said the lighting is far superior to what they had in their old auditorium.

The big ship at sea in the Davenport Central “The Little Mermaid” (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The live-action film version of “The Little Mermaid” – directed by Rob Marshall and starring the Black 22-year-old Halle Bailey, as Ariel – is due to open May 26, 2023. It also will feature new songs co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has a 7-year-old son, Sebastian (named partly for the character).

IntVeld picked this show mainly because the big new movie was in the works, as she did with “Beauty and the Beast” in spring 2017. The live-action “Beauty” film came out that March, and again Bettendorf High did their version first (April 2017), followed at the end of that month by Central, at Davenport West’s auditorium.

The costumes for Central’s “Little Mermaid” were rented, but the students built all the set pieces, designed by Phil Cathoir (who is active with Playcrafters in Moline), with several photo-realistic projected backdrops.

“We had a plan of a one-dimensional ship, and he went ‘Nope,’ and we have a huge ship. He just decided to go for it,” IntVeld said. “Everything is all big and I love it. But it was a lot of work. I feel bad for the kids, because they’ve been working their butts off. It’s a bigger show than we’ve ever done.”

The production has a cast, crew and orchestra pit of about 100 kids altogether, with over 40 on stage. Central typically has 50 students in musicals, she said. Among leads, senior Jenna VanHoosier is playing Ursula, and junior Croix Baker plays Prince Eric.

Jenna VanHoosier plays the sea witch Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” (photo by Jonathan Turner).

In the story, rebellious 16-year-old mermaid Ariel is fascinated with life on land. On one of her visits to the surface, which are forbidden by her controlling father, King Triton, she falls for a human prince. Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a dangerous deal with the sea witch Ursula to become human for three days.

But when plans go awry for the star-crossed lovers, the king must make the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter.

Tickets for Central’s “Little Mermaid” are $10 for adults and $7 for students, available HERE. The Sunday, April 24th show, with preshow party at 12:30 p.m., has tickets for $12 for adults and $10 for students.