Disney's 'Mermaid' helped woman with autism find her voice
San Diego Union-Tribune - 9/6/2019
Sep. 6--In Disney's "The Little Mermaid," a mermaid gives up her voice to become part of the human world. But for Katrina Aguilar, a professional singer on the autism spectrum, "The Little Mermaid" gave the Rancho Peñasquitos resident not only her voice but the career of her dreams.
Aguilar was nonverbal when she was initially diagnosed with low-functioning autism at age 4. Then, she said, the colors, music and magic of the animated undersea tale made her want to express herself to her parents so desperately that at age 5 she started to talk and, eventually, sing. Now 32, she's a vocal performance graduate of the Boston Conservatory.
On Sunday evening at Peñasquitos Lutheran Church, she'll present the San Diego premiere of "Part of Your World," an 80-minute cabaret show where she tells her difficult but uplifting autism journey with 16 songs from her favorite Disney animated films. The concert is a fundraiser for San Diego'sAutism Tree Project Foundation.
Aguilar said the Disney movies not only helped her learn to talk and to sing, they also helped her cope with the loneliness she felt because of autism. Two songs in her show, "Part of Your World," sung by the mermaid Ariel, and "God Help the Outcasts" from Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," are both about outsiders struggling to fit in.
"Those songs are absolutely about isolation, when all you really want is to be understood and accepted," she said. "You may have it hard, but then you open your eyes and see so many other types (of people) who have had it even harder and you feel for them. It's a very personal show."
Aguilar's show was directed by Clifford Bell, an L.A.-based theatrical producer who has helped artists create cabaret shows for more than 30 years. To his knowledge, there's no other cabaret artist in the U.S. like Aguilar who is telling their autism story through music. A few weeks ago, he had Aguilar perform a few numbers from her show at an all-star cabaret benefit in L.A. and she stole the show.
"There were 15 star acts in this show, I mean showstopper after showstopper, and Katrina was the hit of the night," Bell said. "It was risky. She could have bombed, but she went up there and had so much poise and connection to the audience. She was vulnerable, she got emotional and she sang beautifully, and the audience ripped the roof off when she finished."
Aguilar's father, Carlos, a retired engineer, said he and his wife worried for many years that their daughter might never have an independent life. She found comfort watching and listening to the soundtracks of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "Lady and the Tramp," "Aladdin" and other films, but she remained painfully shy and struggled to make friends. Ultimately, the Disney movies helped her with that as well.
"When you're learning how to speak and you fall in love with something that demands speech and singing, it became a huge help for her," Carlos said. "Clearly, Disney was a big part of her development, but particularly in her ability to empathize and love. That's not easy for someone on the spectrum. Expressing emotions in a way that was not socially awkward took her a while to learn."
The turning point for Aguilar came in eighth grade, when she joined the choir at Mesa Verde Middle School in Rancho Peñasquitos. Before then, Carlos said they had no idea their daughter had an operatic-size soprano voice or the confidence to sing in public. Over the next several years, she sang in concert and women's choirs at Mt. Carmel and Westview high schools, performed in several community theater musicals and then joined the choir at MiraCosta College, where she earned her associate of arts degree.
In 2005 and 2006, she toured Europe with the Sound of America Honor Band & Chorus, and in 2010 she was accepted at the Boston Conservatory. Since she graduated in 2015, Aguilar has focused on other personal goals. She got a job in the deli at the Sprouts Farmers Market in Del Sur and got her driver's license. She has also become a regular at area open mike nights.
Aguilar likes creating her own work. In her late teens, she wrote her first show, using songs by the rock band Evanescence to tell the story of The Beatles' loneliest song character, Eleanor Rigby. "Part of Your World" is her second show and it's far more personal. It includes a few songs by Disney villains, as she has faced her share of tormentors over the years, as well as some songs of triumph, like "Almost There" from the "Princess and the Frog," which is about overcoming obstacles.
"The show is a challenge, it's not just a joy ride," she said. "The first time we did the show, I was choking up the whole time. The songs bring out the pain of feeling sometimes like you're not worthy of love."
Carlos Aguilar said he's inspired not only by his daughter's singing and acting talent, but also by her courage in telling her story. Even during her years at Boston Conservatory, she never told her fellow students that she had autism.
"They knew she was different but they didn't know why, and that made it hard for her," he said. "I'm very proud. I don't believe it's easy for her. These are very deep emotional things that she's sharing."
Bell -- who has been helping Aguilar with her singing and acting since he met her at an open mike night two years ago -- said he could see her touring the country with the show, performing educational programs at high schools and colleges and for autism-related organizations. She's excited at the prospect because she thinks her show has lessons for everyone.
"For people with autism, I think the whole bottom line of what I'm saying is, 'You're not alone,'" she said. "And for those outside the spectrum, this show is about understanding some of what we go through on the inside."
Katrina Aguilar: "Part of Your World"
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8
Where: Peñasquitos Lutheran Church, 14484 Penasquitos Drive
Tickets: $20, general; $10, for high school students and younger
Online: brownpapertickets.com (Event 4306967)
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