BWW Review: Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID Visually Stunning Family Fun
Ever since the success of Disney's The Lion King, Disney Theatricals have been trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. After the original production of Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID closed on Broadway in 2009 (after a run of 685 performances), it underwent two years of intensive work to fine-tune and re-think the production. In 2014, Theatre Under The Stars produced this current revised version which includes new scenery and new costumes as well as flying.
Let me begin by saying that this current production is visually stunning and will absolutely enchant the children this entertainment is primarily aimed at... this is the family fun at which Disney excels. However, when you're looking at any stage adaptation of any animated Disney film, one ends up recognizing that it's never going to be as memorable as the movie was. Matching the cinematic magic of animation such as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King (which Julie Taymor turned into one of Broadway's most visually stunning spectacles) on a stage has proven pretty much impossible. This current production comes as close to catching that lightning again as we are likely to see.
As the audience waits for the show to start, there's a scrim that hangs in front of the set. It seems to shimmer and bubble like water thanks to an extremely clever projection which is supported by a subtle water soundtrack. The set by Kenneth Foy is bubbly and bright and the Flying by Foy has the performers who are sea creatures floating and undulating gently above the stage simulating under water movement. The lighting design, by Charlie Morrison is brilliant, wisely choosing to illuminate the show in the bright palette of animation. There are some issues with the bubble festooned set pieces however. When the light hits them just right, they glisten and gleem... but at other times, they just look cheap. Similarly, the costumes, designed by Amy Clark and Mark Moss are wonderfully bright, whimsical and cartoonish.
In this rethinking of the Broadway production, librettist Doug Wright has, along with director Glenn Casale, revised his original book. While all the hit songs from the animated film remain intact, the score for this new version has changed the placement of existing songs. And the new songs don't have that generic hole-filling quality new scores can succumb to. These new songs flesh out and strengthen the characterizations.
Ursula's new number, "Daddy's Little Angel", showcases her hatred, jealousy, and thirst for revenge. Ariel's sisters get a snappy new song, "She's in Love", giving them more stage time than the film. Scuttle and the gulls have a new number that has tap and vaudeville snap called "Positoovity". Prince Eric has a beautiful new ballad, "One Step Closer" where he teaches Ariel to dance after she has been made human and mute from Ursula's spell.
The regal stature of plucky little mermaid Ariel is played down a bit. Her father, King Triton, and his rival, sea witch Ursula, are now presented as siblings. This makes both Ursula's feigned affection and evil plans for Ariel seem much more genuinely creepy.
While the revisions do give the show a bit more bite, essentially the show's spirit remains the same, and director Casale has affectionately guided the material well. I loved his touch of having the actors move their bodies constantly as though they are surrounded by water in the underwater scenes. The actors never break this gentle undulation and you really get the feeling that that they are on the ocean floor. The effect is wonderful. And the idea of putting Ursula's henchmen on wheelie shoes makes them move like they are slithering under the sea.
The cast is fine as well, particularly Alison Woods, who is charming as Ariel and the dashing Eric Kunze as Prince Eric. Ms. Woods has the famous, signature "Part of Your World" to sing, and she delivers it beautifully. Mr. Kunze possesses a golden voice that expresses deep emotion and his rendition of "Her Voice" was a highlight of the evening. Their performances are, as it should be, the ones you will walk away remembering.
Fred Inkley is wonderfully regal as Triton, Melvin Abston is hilarious as Sebastian the crab, and Jennifer Allen is a terrific Ursula. She inhabits the evil sea witch with glee and is a delight to watch perform. Also worth mentioning is Jeff Skowron as Chef Louis, whose "Les Poissons" is a show stopper, even though the choreography rips off "The Shriner Ballet" from Bye Bye Birdie.
While Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID isn't as magical as Disney's The Lion King it is still a visually and vocally stunning evening full of pure family fun.
Running time: Approximately Two Hours and 30 Minutes with one intermission.
Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID, produced by Theatre Under the Stars and presented by Lexus Broadway In Austin, at Bass Concert Hall in the Texas Performing Arts Center (2350 Robert Dedman Dr, Austin, TX 78712). Performances run through Oct 4th.
Ticket info 512-471-1444 or www.BroadwayInAustin.com