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Benson brings Disney to symphony

Jodi Benson has given life to many animated characters with her voice, such as Ariel in Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and Tour Guide Barbie in both "Toy Story" sequels.

"I was about 8 when I told my mom that I wanted to be a working actress," Benson said by phone from her home in northern Georgia. "I wanted to sing, dance and act, but not be a star; I didn't want that kind of life. I'm just using my craft, what God's given me."

She and fellow Broadway veteran Doug LaBrecque will join the Long Bay Symphony for the Myrtle Beach Rotary Club's third annual "Evening of Hollywood Classics" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Myrtle Beach High School Music and Arts Center.

Benson called the success of "The Little Mermaid," which the Walt Disney Co. released in 1989, "a wonderful, huge surprise" for everyone involved in the production.

"To forever change the face of animation," she said, "none of us had that idea."

She said "Mermaid" came out of a Broadway show in which cast members were invited to try out for the different roles, and her voice tape made the cut.

"It really changed the course of my life forever," Benson said.

Starting a career with Disney before motherhood made her appreciate the chance to make a difference in connecting with children, and later her own, through family entertainment.

"For me, music is universal across the board," she said, "whether I'm telling the story to children or adults. When you run out of words, the song comes after."

Benson said she and her husband had been married 15 years before starting a family, which has since grown with two children, both schooled at home.

"Being around kids all the time," she said, thinking about her various animated roles in the past two decades, "it makes you ageless that way. They hear that song, they hear me sing. It's really magical."

Benson said with Disney re-circulating its classic productions every seven years, it introduces them to a whole new generation.

She also sails around the world singing on the Disney Cruise Line. Three weeks ago, she returned from a voyage on the Dream, the third of the fleet of four ships.

Besides the emotions from the first screening of "Mermaid," Benson called singing the opening number from the Gershwin musical "Crazy for You" at the 1992 Kennedy Center Honors an incredible experience, especially to salute Fred Astaire's former dance partner.

"It was giving the song back to Ginger Rogers," Benson said.

She views a great story as the main ingredient of every song.

"You need an amazing melody and lyrics," Benson said. "As a vocalist, you need to translate what the song is about, otherwise the song is meaningless."

She enjoys filling her calendar with guest appearances with orchestras such as Long Bay. Usually with one rehearsal, she said, it all clicks, with each host ensemble assembling a special program, in this case for a duet.

Matt Sedota, a board member for Myrtle Beach Rotary, said this annual concert began in 2009 as a fundraiser for Polio Plus, a Rotary International effort to eliminate polio. He said local beneficiaries have since included Myrtle Beach High School, the Boys & Girls Club of the Grand Strand and the American Red Cross "Heroes" campaign.

Welcoming Tony Award winners and nominees, and singers who have performed with prestigious orchestras and symphonies around the world, adds to the glow of the event for Rotary and Long Bay Symphony officials.

"We have had so much fun the past two years," Sedota said, "and we expect this concert to be the best yet. ... And this year, for the first time, we're adding in voices from the Carolina Master Chorale."

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