Sebastian’s all heart under the hard shell

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Melvin Abston plays Sebastian the crab (far right) in the traveling production of "Disney's The Little Mermaid," which comes to the Durham Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 17-22. [Mark and Tracy Photography

By Rachel Teseneer
Times-News correspondent

   DURHAM — One of Disney’s most enrapturing tales of love, adventure and sacrifice can be seen at the Durham Performing Arts Center this month. From Oct. 17-22, “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” will be dazzling audiences with iconic songs and beloved characters.
Perhaps one of the best-known and loved characters of the show is Sebastian the crab, loyal aide of King Triton and friend to Ariel. In a recent interview, Melvin Abston, who plays Sebastian in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” gave some insight into his character and the show.
Abston grew up in Chicago.
“I was always active in plays at church when I was young,” he said.
But college was when Abston found the strength of his passion — and his big break. He sang in a group with four other men, and all five of them were hired by a theater in need of Motown singers.
“We were hired as background, and that’s when my career blossomed,” he said.
Abston has been a professional entertainer for 25 years.
“Chicago cut my teeth,” he said. “The training I had, I think the best way to describe it is [that it was] theater boot camp.”
Abston said a lot of his training took a very physical approach to acting, which can be witnessed in Abston’s characterization of Sebastian.
Abston said Sebastian was particularly challenging to play due to his walk.
“It’s a very staccato walk,” he said. “I tell people that it’s similar to C3PO from Star Wars in that it’s disjointed, but it’s something you have to see in action to fully understand.”
Abston also said that “the sheer number of times going on and off stage” makes it more tiring to portray Sebastian than some other characters he has played.
While talking with Abston, his passion for the show and the characters became astoundingly clear. Abston expressed a deep connection to the story’s layers of relationships.
“There’s father-daughter, friends, lovers, a father and his confidante,” he said. “The songs come out of those scenarios. It’s based on a movie for kids, but anyone can find something to be moved by. The audiences will feel the emotions of the songs.”
Abston told what he likes best about playing Sebastian.
“I get to do a little bit of everything,” he said. “Sebastian’s funny even when he’s trying not to be. There’s a lot of heart under that red shell.”
Abston looked back on his audition for the show and remembered something that the director had said to him.
“He told me, and I’m giving an approximation here, but he said ‘Your heart came through and resonated.’ And I think that’s what Sebastian does. He reflects what you’re feeling as an audience.”
But Sebastian isn’t the only character Abston enjoys in the play. He said he would enjoy playing two others.
“It’s a tie between Triton and Ursula,” he said. “I identify with Triton, being a father, and how he has to go from protective father and being prejudiced against people he’s never met to being accepting of others. And then I’d like to play Ursula … she’s so fun and she loves her own humor.
“The show has so much heart,” Abston added. “I love this show, the script, the changes that have been made from Broadway. … It’s masterful. Alan Menken wrote some of the most memorable songs of the modern day.”

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17-18; 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19; 8 p.m. Oct 20; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Oct. 21; 1 p.m., and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham. Tickets range from $30 to $156 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster, at the box office or by calling 919-680-2787.

Rachel Teseneer is a sophomore at North Carolina State University and a Teens & 20s writer.

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