An open letter to the Disney Organization (or my

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Elphie3
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Hi everyone! Ok, so I just got back from “The Little Mermaid”. Partly because my feelings are best expressed this way, and partly just to switch things up I thought I would write my review in the form of an open letter to the Disney Organization. Before I begin my letter though, I thought I should include some general facts:

Performance: Wed. Evening, Dec. 12th
Seats: Mid./Back of the Mezz (NOTE: DO NOT sit here if you go see the show. Actually don’t sit here if you EVER see something at the Lunt-Fonntaine. Actually don’t sit ANYWHERE in the theater if you go to see something at the Lunt-Fontainne.)
Flounder: J J Singleton




An open letter to the Disney Organization.

Dear Disney,

First of all, to quote another musical that opened this season “you’ve no greater champion than I.” I love Disney. And I LOVE The Little Mermaid. Not only is it one of my favorite movies, but I spent many hours as a child in my bathtub acting out the entire story. I have great respect for what you have done to better the Broadway community – especially your contribution to the refurbishment of 42nd street and The New Amsterdam Theater. And am very happy that you’re here. I was also very excited when I heard that you decided to bring my favorite Disney film of all time to the stage, despite the obvious risk factor, and huge challenges involved. For all that I applaud you!

But despite all that I feel that I must call you out on several things that have gone on way too long with regards to your bringing new shows to Broadway. I enjoyed “Beauty and the Beast.” I applauded your innovation with “The Lion King.” I even enjoyed “Aida.” Then came “Tarzan.” Enough said. That was followed by “Mary Poppins” which I also had several issues with. Now it seems “The Little Mermaid” is set to follow in the footsteps of these recent misses and I feel that there are several things that need to be addressed.

The main issue I have is that you seem to have NO idea what made “The Little Mermaid” work in the first place. Yes, of course it is an animated movie that needs to be reimagined (or at least expanded) for the stage. I’m all for it! However, if you’re going to reimagine something you first have to know what worked and didn’t work in the original, and why. So, in the words of another immortal musical “Let’s start at the very beginning.”

The direction is terrible. I’m sorry, but it had to be said. If you’re going to reimagine something for the stage choose a director who has the vision to reimagine it. Up until now Francesca Zambello has primarily been associated with directing Operas. I believe it. Not because there’s anything wrong or unimaginative about Opera, it’s just that the demands are different. In “The Little Mermaid” everyone just stands there and talks. Or sings. Or does light movement back and forth across the stage as if they’re singing arias and can’t move when they “hit the high notes.” (This is a gross generalization with regards to Opera, but you get the picture.) Nothing that the characters physically DO advances the story. The same goes for the choreography. What are they doing, and why? Did no one ask these questions? Which brings me to: PLEASE get a dramaturge. You are in sore need of one.

The dramaturge issue brings me back to my first point – know what worked in the first place. The two main things that the production team seems to be trying to add in the musical are 1.) Character development – making them three-dimensional, 2.) Fleshing out the show in general, i.e. adding songs, etc. Now the movie had a very clear narrative structure.

1.) We are introduced to an adventurous Prince who loves the sea, and the undersea world ruled by King Triton. These worlds are very isolated from each other.
2.) We meet Ariel – Triton’s youngest daughter. A spitfire young Mermaid who loves anything to do with humans.
3.) Ursula – the sea witch searches for a way to get rid of King Triton and rule the sea.
4.) Ariel is frustrated that her father doesn’t understand her. One night she rescues the Prince from drowning when she goes up to look at his ship. She falls instantly in love; he awakes only long enough to remember the beautiful voice of the girl who saved him.
5.) Ursula decides to use Ariel’s love of this human to get to Triton
6.) Sebastian, worried that the King will find out about Ariel’s antics, tries to convince her that life underwater beats living on land “Under the Sea.”
7.) Triton finds out what Ariel has done and in a fit of anger destroys her collection of human objects. Driven to desperate measures Ariel goes to the sea witch for help. As Flounder and Sebastian watch, she trades her voice for a pair of legs. She has three days to get the Prince to kiss her.
8.) Ariel goes to the surface, and gets very close to getting her kiss.
9.) After Eric decides to abandon this “dream girl” in favor of Ariel, Ursula gets nervous and turns herself into Vanessa – entrancing the Prince and getting him to marry her.
10.) On the sunset of the third day havoc ensues at the wedding, and Ariel gets her voice back just as the sun sets.
11.) Triton trades his life for Ariel’s, Ursula seizes power, Eric kills her, Triton lets Ariel go, and turns her back into a human. All ends happily.

That strong narrative arc is totally destroyed in the musical. Here are some glaring examples (certainly not all):

1.) Ursula decides to use Ariel to get to Triton by stealing her voice before she has ANY idea a.) That Ariel wants to be human or b.) That she is in love with Eric. Ariel hasn’t even rescued him yet.
2.) “Part of That World” is technically Ariel’s second “I Want” song – the first being “The World Above.” I understand needing her to sing before “World”, but don’t give her two “I Want” songs.
3.) “Under the Sea” happens AFTER Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto. Then Ariel decides to run away (complete with clamshell suitcase), then Flotsam and Jetsam come and take her to Ursula.
4.) Triton at the end says to Eric “Ah, so you’re the young man who tried to save my Ariel. I think she can save herself.” – Eric did NOTHING and I repeat NOTHING to try and rescue Ariel.
5.) Triton implies that Ariel’s mother died when she went to the surface and was killed by humans, yet all the humans in the story claim that mermaids are myths.


Then there’s the fact that somehow (this takes REAL talent) everything you do to try and flesh out the characters made them seem MORE two-dimensional. Ariel is never portrayed as a strong independent woman searching for more; she is a naïve sixteen year old in silly puppy love who just likes to fight with her dad. Eric is a ditz who’s only interested in a voice – right up until the very last moment. Ursula is a funny, sarcastic character that’s never really dangerous or scary. Heck she was just trying to teach her niece a lesson after all, and an important “girl-power” one at that. Honestly I really didn’t care about ANYONE onstage. There never really felt like there was anything at stake, or that anything was really dangerous. I left the show feeling like Eric and Ariel were going to be divorced in a year.

Then there are other dramaturgical problems. Here are some of the things that made no sense to me.

1.) Triton and Ursula (a squid) are siblings? (Ok – it’s a fairy tale, I can let this one slide. Maybe they’re step siblings.)
2.) Ursula will die if her shell is broken? How did she live before she was given the shell?
3.) They wear sunglasses underwater?
4.) Ariel decides she’s going to “run away” to the surface with a clamshell suitcase? How exactly would that work?
5.) Flounder disappears until ¾ of the way through the second act?
6.) Is Ariel in love with the human world, or Eric? I feel like if Eric hadn’t shown up nothing about the story would have really changed.
7.) You can be “grounded” under water but teenagers “swim all over you”?
8.) Ariel “takes her voice for granted” through out the show? Are we talking singing career wise, or metaphorically “power” wise? (I would like to take this momet to add - if Ariel looses her voice, don't be afraid to actually have her loose her voice! (Hey, she doesn't speak for half the movie and no one had a problem with it!) Ariel sings A LOT "in her head" when she's a human. We get what she's feeling without all the songs - and it's so much more heartbreaking. I'm not saying this is how it should be done, but I don't quite know why you made the choice you did.
9.) Flounder and Sebastian magically know about Ariel’s deal with Ursula even though neither are present when it takes place, nor did any other character tell them about it.

Ok, on to the casting. Eh. That’s pretty much all I have to say. And that mainly has nothing to do with the actors – it’s just that they were given so little to do character development wise that it’s hard to judge. (Not to mention the fact that you use doubles and stand ins more times than I can count. It felt like the role of Ariel should have been double billed.) Sierra Boggess was fine. Cute, lovely voice, very enthusiastic. And though I have to give you major props for taking a chance on an unknown, I couldn’t help feeling like (for that very same reason) you cast her as a cog in a machine that’s easily replaceable. Sherie Renee Scott is also good – though I feel like in trying so hard to reinterpret what Pat Carroll did she lost any of the menace, danger, or scary factor. She did manage to find great humor, and I saw her digging and grasping for the humanity of the character as much as she possibly could. Flotsam and Jetsam – I love those two actors! But they were severely under used. Same goes for Titus (who by the way really comes alive (finally) in his sweet, tender moments with Ariel. I loved his verse in the "If Only" quarted. Though on the flip side, since he's bigger than the guy playing Louis "Les Poissons" was a little hysterical, and not in the intended way.) I don’t even know why Flounder was there. Eric was having major vocal problems tonight. And Norm – I don’t even know what to say. I feel like I really can’t judge anyone because of the material. A lot of it was very forgettable. Ironically, everyone was brilliant on their heelies. I feel like 99% of the rehearsal process was just on how to use your heelies. They should have spent more time on character development. The other thing I noticed is that everything felt very controlled. To a fault. Sierra seemed more in control of her body when she was supposed to be falling then when she was dancing.

The new material. On the whole, not good. Thought there was one moment that I LOVED. In the second act, Eric teaches Ariel to dance as a way of communicating and expressing herself. This was beautiful on so many levels. First of all it referenced right back to the “World” lyric “Legs are required for jumping, dancing.” Second – this was the first time the choreographer actually used movement to tell the story. Third of all – this should be the poster moment for how all the added moments in the show should have been. We all remember the VERY brief moment in the film where Ariel and Eric dance. This took that moment to a whole new level – and the lyrics were even set to the background music from the film scene. The Scuttle material wasn’t great. I actually didn’t have too big of a problem with “Positoovity.” What I DID have a problem with is that whenever Scuttle appeared there was magically an entire ensemble of tap dancing seagulls at the ready. And by the way, why is the number where Ariel learns to walk a tap number? “Yes I can stand now! The first thing I’m going to do is some wings in bare feet!” Yes. Literally. The other odd thing is that all the important material is rushed through. Triton “letting Ariel go” is two sentences. And I don’t mean those immortal sentences “then I guess there’s just one problem left – how much I’m going to miss her.” Doug Wright (who I love!) did an ok job – but I can’t help feeling that it was less his fault, and more the directives he was given. I can’t tell you how many times Eric says “I need a woman as wild and passionate as the sea. Where will I find her?” I can’t help but wish Howard Ashman would come riding in and save the day!

The staging. Again, not good. There’s not much more to say. Also – it was very clear that almost anytime anyone exited they were rushing into a costume change – once anyone started heading offstage it was like “rush! Forget the character – get off now!”

Set, Costumes and Lighting. I have this to say Disney – again, kudos for trying to do something smart and artistic. For turning away from the notion of “spectacle for spectacles sake” that is so often associated with your Broadway work. However, some, even a lot of spectacle is not always a bad thing – especially if it helps tell the story. In “Wicked”, the green girl needs to fly. It just has to happen. I’ve watched clips on “the site” of amateur shows that are far more visually interesting then what was up on the stage. To be honest, I would have liked some wires, and I would have loved some water. What I really didn’t understand is that there were moments that were beautiful. The moving water gobo that’s projected when we first enter Ursula’s lair looked GREAT! Why couldn’t you have used that whenever we were underwater? Likewise for the underwater projection when Eric is singing? (The sinking ship is ok.) Hated the mermaid tails (oh, and when Sierra’s double takes over for her when she turns into a human she’s wearing a single tail over her feet. At least keep it consistent!) I did like Ariel’s human dresses, but that was about it. The sea creatures – no idea what they were (Flounder and Sebastian included.) The set was so bare. I could understand the actors just standing and talking if they had big amazing sets around them, but no. Ariel’s grotto was terrible – we don’t even know what it is. And “it” is mainly shoes. Oversized clown shoes.

And don’t get me started on the ending. Please. I’ll just start yelling. And I don’t want to yell.

All in all Disney, it felt like a passable attempt. Like you went to the comfort zone and didn’t push beyond. I urge you to think about Walt Disney’s mission when he founded your company. He wanted to provide quality entertainment, with more than a pinch of magic. I beg you to remember why you loved Disney moves when you were a kid – ‘cause I have to tell you “The Little Mermaid: The Musical” would not have done it for you if you were a kid today. There is still time (though not much) to fix what you have before you open. This could be a wonderful opportunity to create another Disney masterpiece. Please, please, please. You know there’s a problem when I walk out of the theater thinking, “Eh, I really wouldn’t want to play Ariel in that show.” ME who still walks around the house singing “Part of Your World!” Take risks, but first and foremost put your faith (and work) in people who can lead your material in the direction it deserves. Worry more about quality than box office and I guarantee I will be in the front row cheering you on.

~Elphie





Madame Morrible: "So you take the chicken, now it must be a white chicken. The corpse can be any color. And that is the spell for lost luggage!" - The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken
Updated On: 12/13/07 at 01:08 AM
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CurtainPullDowner
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Nicely put.
The Director leaves town this week so don't expect any changes except for casting of the young boys and possibly one more.
I think the reviews are gonna be all over the place.
And this could end up on TKTS faster than POPPINS.
It will be interesting and expect the "sheep" to disagree with your review.
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BrianIdol
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eeek! Scary stuff...and i think you're absolutely right that it all goes back to the director...even set and lighting decisions get final approval from the director....
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Elphie3
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No, I agree.

Though I can't believe the director's leaving NOW! (I know it's the Holidays of course, but the show needs work.)

And let me just reiterate - I want this show to be good more than anyone! I'm pulling for it!
Madame Morrible: "So you take the chicken, now it must be a white chicken. The corpse can be any color. And that is the spell for lost luggage!" - The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken
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CurtainPullDowner
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Well, in this case, the director is not calling the shots.
Read the name above the title....
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Elphie3
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Right. Well, let me rephrase that. I don't understand why SOMEONE'S not around to fix stuff. If not, why don't they just open tomorrow?
Madame Morrible: "So you take the chicken, now it must be a white chicken. The corpse can be any color. And that is the spell for lost luggage!" - The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken
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CurtainPullDowner
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Cause they are selling a lot of tkts.
Maybe they can keep the reviewers away forever.
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rosscoe(au)
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Elphie3,

Great review, i have a feeling Disney don't care, as long as this makes it's money back in the next 12 months that is all that matters.

I think alot of other people will leave the Lunt feeling the same way over the next few months.

It will be interesting to see what Variety has to say once the show opens.
Well I didn't want to get into it, but he's a Satanist. Every full moon he sacrifices 4 puppies to the Dark Lord and smears their blood on his paino. This should help you understand the score for Wicked a little bit more. Tazber's: Reply to Is Stephen Schwartz a Practicing Christian
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Okay I know it is one part of your open letter but in the movie... Sebatian does say, "Children, Give them an inch and they swim all over you..." Did they ruin that great fabulous line?
"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around."
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Elphie, in your opening paragraph, which song did you quote, and from what show?

You've written a very strong, detailed essay. Can't wait to see whether I agree with you, or the people who have already seen it a million times.

We'll find out Saturday.
Updated On: 12/13/07 at 07:54 AM
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I thought it was a nicely done review, would brobaboy take out a few of the "i'm sorry" lines, but it was ok. Perhaps you should also include that the point of having an out of town tryout is to test the material and fix things, which cant be done if you have pre-booked your broadway venue only a few months after the out of town tryouts, therefore having no time to do a major overhaul if needed (ala Aida)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/27199361@N08/ Phantom at the Royal Empire Theatre
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uncageg
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Maybe you should send that letter directly to Disney.
Just give the world Love.
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sit&dither
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I couldn't agree more. And sadly, I said the same things after the Denver run.
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Good Christ, this sounds like a disaster.

My open letter to Disney:

ENOUGH WITH THE TURDS, ALREADY!!
"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” ~ Muhammad Ali
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Hey! Thanks for the great feedback. To address your specific comments...

Sorry about the "I'm sorrys" - I wrote this at one in the morning. I'll go back and edit it :)

The rear Mezz wasn't the best place to sit because 1.) It's slightly obstructed (at least where I was) because of the GIANT aisle in between the front and middle Mezz. IT was hard to see what was happening at the very bottom of the stage. Also I have a feeling that the show was choreographed to be seen head on, and not from above - so the choreography may have looked better from the orchestra (thought big note - he rear orchestra is also obstructed by the meszz.)

In terms of the line "You give them an inch, the swim all over you" - yes I know it was from the movie - I love that line! They kept it in the show and it was great. I was just trying to point out their inconsistancies - they can say that a teenager can "swim all over you" but they're still "grounded" - I don't know. "Grounded" fees like such a literal human term.

The lyric "You've no greater champion than I" is from "Frankenstein" - otherwise known as "Hunterstein" - the off-Broadway, not Broadway one.

I very well may send it to Disney... you never know! :)
Madame Morrible: "So you take the chicken, now it must be a white chicken. The corpse can be any color. And that is the spell for lost luggage!" - The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken
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I think you should send it to Disney. They probably won't read it here.

I saw it in Denver and enjoyed it. Wasn't crazy about the changes at the end. I enjoyed the new songs also. I am not the biggest fan of Disney Stage shows. I have seen all but Tarzan and Poppins on tour here in Denver. Beauty & the Beast being my least favorite. I was looking for the moving sidewalk to the next attraction. Thank goodness I didn't pay to see it. I think it is ashame that Disney pretty much doesn't care what theatergoers think as far as changes to their shows go and they pretty much march to the beat of their own drum. They said after the Denver run that they would not be making any of the bigger changes suggested for the second act in New York. Only some small ones. It seems that they would have learned their lesson with Tarzan. I sometimes think that they still don't get it. Broadway is not a theme park. Just my random thoughts.
Just give the world Love.
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I don't disagree with some of what you've said, but a few of things aren't quite correct... Eric does get in his ship and go after Ursula at the end (so he is not passive, though I agree that it was poorly blocked). It's just that Ariel manages to save herself. Also, it's "Part of That World" not "Part of Your World." It's an important distinction, especially in the context you used it. "The World Above" describes how Ariel has never felt completely at home in the sea. "Part of That World" is about her desire for knowledge of things unknown. She sees (and meets) Eric after that song and only then does he become a part of that picture (as opposed to being the whole picture).

I think Schumacher genuinely cares about producing good shows, but just isn't very talented. He knows they made huge mistakes with Tarzan and on paper, the idea of bringing in Zambello and her team seems to be a big step in the right direction. The production design on her other projects truly is beautiful. Unfortunately, she didn't handle the story through-line of a musical as well as she should have. I think it's unforgivable to start a show this big and not have the ending sorted before you start rehearsals. Disney should have paid the money for someone like Jack O'Brien (proven in both musicals and opera as seen in the brilliant Il Trittico at The Met this past season).

I love when people are critical and actually back up their points instead of just saying "it's a disaster" so thank you for the review. The strength of talent in the leads impressed me much more than it impressed you and maybe that's why I liked the show a lot more than you did. I had a lot of fun, felt that Act I was great, and think that overall it's a good show.
If the audience could do better, they'd be up here on stage and I'd be out there watching them. - Ethel Merman
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Wow. I totally didn't even see him in his ship. Maybe it's where I was sitting - but good to know.

Thanks!
Madame Morrible: "So you take the chicken, now it must be a white chicken. The corpse can be any color. And that is the spell for lost luggage!" - The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken
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Well put Elphie. One of the things I missed was some genuine magic, especially in UNDER THE SEA, which sadly was under-whelming. It should have been a b*lls to the wall, knock your socks off, outrageously fun PARTY. Titus sold the heck out of it, but the choreography, costumes, etc didn't put it over the top. In this song and elsewhere, would it have killed them to fire up a bubble machine? Now some would say this is idea might be too predictable or old hat, but look at the Gazillion Bubble Show as an example. They do amazing things now with bubbles and the effect I feel would have really put the audience in an under the sea mood. The song needed a bit more sparkle to really capture the animated film. Also, I missed the waves crashing behind Ariel while she sings on the rocks in the Part of Your World reprise. It's those seminal moments from the film that everyone remembers and Disney failed to adequately recreate them. They came very close with Kiss The Girl, which really touched me. Alas, they cut us off at the tail by not giving a well-deserved applause break.


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I agree with almost everything you wrote.

I'm a Disney fan, and while I felt Tarzan was a complete trainwreck, I really enjoyed Beauty and the Beast and had a pretty good time during Mary Poppins, so I was expecting to like Mermaid - especially since it has so many "good" musical theater numbers practically served up ready to go (Kiss the Girl, Under the Sea)

I'm not a theater professional or a critic. Just a fan. So when I'm sitting in a theater thinking "Good lord, this is the most lifeless, flat musical staging I've ever seen" then you know something is wrong.

It was positively dismal - and a lot of it was the staging. If you're going to have a big number, I need more choreography than everybody just waving their arms around the whole time... while slowly weaving around - especially during a big number like "under the sea"

Also the two giant... bongs. Were distracting. And silly. And used for everything from the ocean to the palace. Hideous set.

The only numbers that landed for me were Sherie Rene Scotts - and I couldn't tell if it was because they were well directed or if Sherie is just SO GOOD that she can make anything look fabulous - it might be a little of both.

And the lyrics to the finale were so banal that I was laughing. What a let down. Throwing confetti at the audience after that song is NOT going to make us forget about how much it sucked.

Yikes. I really thought I'd love this show - it has some of the best music of any of the Disney films...

I thought the cast was very strong, if that counts for anything, but they can't save it on their own!
Now what would you say if today I started over? Without a thing but this taped together four leaf clover And I'll pretend like everything is already alright And I'll run toward the sun till the castle's out of sight
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Thanks for the support!
Madame Morrible: "So you take the chicken, now it must be a white chicken. The corpse can be any color. And that is the spell for lost luggage!" - The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken
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Some clips from the show and inerviews:

http://www.theatermania.com/content/news.cfm/story/12293
Just give the world Love.
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great review elphie.
....but the world goes 'round
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I saw the show Tuesday night and coincidentally sat in between the lighting designer (Natasha Katz) and the director, and their assistants with notebooks. I was so disappointed with many aspects of the show. During intermission, I congratulated Ms. Katz and she laughed and said thank you and was surprised I knew who she was. I also told her assistant after a bathroom break that Flounder's costume was the ugliest costume I'd seen on a Broadway stage and that she should take note of that. She was young and cool and laughed, but didn't physically take note of it re: An open letter to the Disney Organization (or my 'Little Mermaid Review