Review - The Little Mermaid & Patti LuPone at NJPAC

By Disney standards the year and a half run of the original Broadway production of The Little Mermaid was a bit of a disappointment. In theory, a competently created musical based on the hit animated film would probably run for a year and a half based on the title recognition alone. My opinion of that show was higher than most of my colleagues. I enjoyed it, but mostly for the vaudevillian pleasure of seeing a cast of terrific Broadway performers each getting a star turn or two. But after some script revisions and a whole new visual concept, director Glenn Casale's production of the new Mermaid that just opened at Paper Mill is a well-crafted, delightfully designed and performed charmer.

All the original film songs by Alan Menken (music) and the late Howard Ashman (lyrics) remain ("Part of Your World," "Under The Sea" et al.) as do many of those Menken wrote for the stage with Glenn Slater. (Highlighted by the show-stopping "Positoovity," sung by a chorus of tap-dancing seagulls, and "She's In Love," a catchy girl-group number performed by the mermaid sisters.) But Doug Wright's book has been revised and new songs have been added to better define the characters of Triton, King of the Sea and his evil octopus sister. Ursula. (My favorite song from the Broadway version, Ursula's big barrelhouse number "I Want the Good Times Back," has been cut, but I can understand why since the character no longer resembles a cabaret singer in a gay bath house.)

Kenneth Foy's scenic design, combined with Charlie Morrison's lighting, offers beautifully colorful storybook depictions of aquatic locations and the famous Flying By Foy replicates swimming by lifting actors into the air.

At the center of it all is the delightfully humorous and lovely-voiced Jessica Grové as Ariel, the rebellious teenage daughter of King Triton (Edward Watts as the well-meaning single dad) whose fascination with the world of humans, particularly with a handsome and adventurous young human named Prince Eric (a vocally and physically swoon-worthy Nick Adams), inspires her to make a deal with her wicked Aunt Ursula to trade her voice for a chance to ditch her tail for legs in hopes of winning the prince's heart. Parents may wince a bit to have their children listen to Ursula's encouragement that men prefer women who don't talk, but then, she is the villain. She's also quite the show-stopper as played by brassy belter and comedian, Liz McCartney.

Alan Mingo, Jr. also gives a sock-o performance as the wry-humored crab, Sebastian, who leads the company in the joyous "Under The Sea" (presented by choreographer John MacInnis and costume designers Amy Clark and Mark Koss as a sort or Brazilian carnival) and the sensual - by Disney standards - "Kiss The Girl." Fine support is also given by Matt Allen as the daffy seagull, Scuttle, Timothy Shew as the bombastic chef and Scott Leiendecker and Sean Patrick Doyle as the snarkily slithering pair of electric eels.

Photos by Billy Bustamante: Top: Jessica Grové; Bottom: Liz McCartney.

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It was a year ago when Patti LuPone opened at the brand new cabaret club 54 Below with Far Away Places, a smashing success that was recorded live for CD. Now, the she and director Scott Wittman have adapted the show for larger venues, premiering with this past weekend's performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Backed by Rob Fisher and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, LuPone continues to belt her vocal and comedic charisma to the back of the house.

Fisher and the orchestra set the travelogue mood in the first half of the program with an assortment of Richard Rodgers pieces - the overtures from South Pacific, Flower Drum Song and The King and I, plus themes from Victory at Sea - and Don Sebesky's orchestral arrangement of Sondheim's Send In The Clowns.

After intermission, LuPone charged onto the stage with "Gypsy In My Soul," cleverly orchestrated with snippets of Jule Styne's Gypsy melodies interspersed. A bluesy/sexy rendering of Willie Nelson's "Nightlife" introduced her remembrances of working on Broadway during the grimy days of the 1970s, when the Theatre District was loaded with porn palaces and con artists, and loving every moment of it. Brecht/Weill's "The Bilbao Song" expressed her preference for the bawdy Times Square of her youth over today's sanitized tourist haven.

Being a theatre actress and concert artist helps satisfy her lust for travel ("I would have made a great stewardess. 'Turn that phone off! Who do you think you are!?!'"), exemplified by Cole Porter's "Come to the Supermarket In Old Peking" with its tongue-twisting patter of saleable goods. A bit of Brecht/Weill's "Sailor's Tango" introduced a nautical section which began with a tender "I Cover The Waterfront" (Johnny Green/Edward Heyman) before jolting into a devastatingly dry "Pirate Jenny" and capping it off with a delightfully enthused "By The Sea."

A stopover in Paris was provided by Bill Burnett & Peggy Sarlin's hilarious Edith Piaf spoof, "I Regret Everything" and a certain Cole Porter standard from Can-Can. In the song she proclaims as "The Sicilian national anthem," Johnny Mercer's vengeful "I Wanna Be Around" she deals with heartbreak with a comically psychotic twist, but the hurt is displayed to shattering effect in David Yazbek's "Invisible," which she introduced in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown.

Closing the evening was another Weill, "September Song," (lyric by Maxwell Anderson); a masterful treatment of a classic lyric with warmth and wisdom.

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I must admit to smirking a bit when, only a few minutes into Israel's Gesher Theater Company's stage adaption of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story, the main character removed his clothing and started soaking in a bathtub, contributing to the odd trend that has hit New York stages in the past couple of seasons of plays and musicals featuring nude (or almost nude or suggested nudity) bathtub scenes. (Bonnie and Clyde, Macbeth, Sleep No More, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Nance, If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, Through The Yellow Hour, Nice Work If You Can Get It... Have I missed any?)

Founded in 1991, The Gesher Company was originally made up of a group of actors who migrated from Moscow to Tel Aviv, creating theatre in between missile attacks during the first Gulf War. Their Enemies is making a brief visit to Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival, and while the cultural exchange is certainly an attraction, several factors contribute to making the evening a bit of a letdown.

Performed in Hebrew (earpieces playing simultaneous translations in English and Russian are available) with a text by Yevgeny Arye (who also directs) and Roee Chen, the story is set in 1949 and revolves around Herman Broder (Israel (Sasha) Demidov), a Polish Holocaust survivor who spent the war in hiding while his servant Yadwiga (Natasha Manor) secretly cared for him. Thinking that his wife and children have been killed by the Nazi's, Herman marries Yadwiga after the war and they move to New York.

While posing as a traveling salesman to his devoted wife, he's actually earning money as a ghost writer for a rabbi (Boris Lempert) and using his time away from home to carry on an affair with fellow survivor Masha (Efrat Ben Zur). When his wife Tamara (Lilian Ruth) shows up, very much alive, things get complicated.

Though it sounds a bit like a French sex farce, the story is quite somberly told. And while the play might possibly be a bit more vibrant in its original Hebrew, the English translation I heard contained a lot of perfunctory, colorless dialogue that simply pushed the surface narrative along. The Rose, built as a music venue, was designed for acoustics rather than intimacy and my seat in row H seemed equivalent to the back of the house in one of the older, traditional Broadway theatres. Coupled with the dim lighting, it was difficult to see the faces of nor feel any connection to the actors during the nearly three hour long production, despite moments where performances were projected live on a large screen.

The Gesher has a fine reputation and I would look forward to seeing one of their future productions in a more appropriate venue.

Photo: Israel (Sasha) Demidov and Efrat Ben Zur.

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