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Review: High-Tail It To Toby's To Catch THE LITTLE MERMAID

Merfolk, get your tails over to Toby's for their holiday production of The Little Mermaid. It's lively and fun, and a genuine kid-pleaser. It's always a great time at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, and consider building in a little extra time getting there, as you may find delays due to nearby construction and the encroachment of the back end of Columbia's beloved annual Symphony Of Lights display.

The Little Mermaid is generally regarded as the movie that marked Disney's revival after the dim years of the 70s and 80s, when the survival of the animation department, and Disney itself, was precarious. Having had Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" story "in development" since the 1930s, (when the story was 100 years old and considered 'public domain'), Disney's new management brought in Broadway's Little Shop Of Horrors songcrafters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. In 2007, re-imagining the movie for presentation live on stage afforded the opportunity for Menken to create new songs with lyricist Glenn Slater, Ashman having died in 1991. Since then, Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID Musical, book by Doug Wright, has been popular with theatre audiences around the world.

At Toby's, dinner is self-served at an expansive buffet- romaine lettuce wisely absent from the salad bar- with show-themed names on the dishes, then the floor is cleared and mopped. A performer welcomes the audience and recognizes groups, birthdays and anniversaries, advises us regarding cell phones, then on with the show.

The show! Opening Overture, hinting at instrumental flourishes of Mike Barber and Kristin Chamberlain on brass and Steve Haaser on woodwinds, finishes, and lights come up on the surface of the sea. It is on the surface (the program helpfully provides locations for each scene) that our heroine Ariel is first smitten. David A. Hopkins, in charge of both scenic and lighting design, really shines in this one. How to create an environment that's underwater with no actual water? Lighting, and smog/fog effects, which are dazzling to behold. The ship is charmingly clever, and the shipwreck sequence, simply enchanting.

The show's ensemble is packed full of A-list Toby's veterans, and not just veterans, STAR veterans- many lead characters from Toby's Mama Mia!, Joseph, Newsies, Show Boat and Young Frankenstein. It's wonderful to see DeCarlo Raspberry featured as Sebastian, as he and the part seem custom made for one another. His silly walk and slapstick comedy are terrific. Taylor Witt and Joey Ellinghaus as Flotsam and Jetsam, respectively, are slithery and graceful, smooth and nefarious every moment they're onstage, and just a lot of fun to watch. Lynn Sharp Spears gives Ursula the boisterous wickedness required of a Disney villain, and, as Scuttle, Jeffrey Shankle is physically amusing and vocally precise. Making his Toby's debut as Flounder is Jacob Hale, so expressive and charming I expect we'll see him again soon.

Director/Choreographer Mark Minnick puts this top-notch talent to work with energetic staging that looks clean and inclusive throughout the show- designing movement for an audience in the round is a significant talent unto itself, and Minnick has plenty of it. Amazing costumes, courtesy of A.T. Jones & Sons, augment, rather than overshadow, each performer despite the impressive size of them. Well-planned sets and hyper-mobile performers are responsible for the show's snappy pace and remarkably speedy scenic changes.

Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings has great songs and a great cast, so the show is a gem of musical delightment. Your sing-along favorites are warmly familiar, and the new material has legs of its own. "Fathoms Below" is an effective introduction to the human characters in the story, and Ursula's song "Daddy's Little Angel" provides some much-needed motivational backstory for her. "Part Of Your World," the movie's iconic, award-winning song, is spot-on thanks to the vocal prowess of actress Abby Middleton. Leading ladies doing character work as mer-sisters in "She's In Love" are delightful, and "Under The Sea" is a rollicking frolic of color and movement. In Act II, Scuttle and company rock "Positoovity." "One Step Closer," a dance duet that's tender and heartwarming, features emotive singing from Justin Calhoun. "Kiss The Girl," a song the skills of the ensemble guarantees will enchant, proves visually magical as well.

Themes of THE LITTLE MERMAID will ring true for parents, teens, and anyone who has felt like a fish out of water. It's a story of acceptance and inclusion, about a parent coming to terms with a child who doesn't follow traditional patterns. Relationships and expectations grow, with brilliant glimpses of understanding sprinkled throughout. Though the climactic ending feels muddy and rushed, ("book problems," I think, intrinsic to the script), the empowerment of Ariel is complete. This is a feel-good, girl positive show for sure.

This holiday season, give and enjoy the gift of live theatre with your loved ones. How many thingamabobs does your cavern already hold? Joyous moments need only your attention to become precious treasured memories.

THE LITTLE MERMAID plays through March 17, 2019 at Toby's Dinner Theatre Of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, Maryland 21044. For tickets, phone the Box Office at 410-730-8311, or visit their website to buy tickets online.

Photo: Lynn Sharp Spears as Ursula and Abby Middleton as Ariel.

Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography



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