BWW Review: Delightful THE LITTLE MERMAID at Beck Center
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
One of the difficulties of doing the Disney Theatrical, The Little Mermaid, is how to do the underwater scenes. Yes, much of the story of Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, the master of the sea, in her search for "a world in which I feel truly realized in my own terms," takes place, as the songs states, "Under the Sea," in contrast to "The World Above."
Beck Center, with the aid of Projection Designer, Adam Zeek, from the University of Cincinnati, and a very expensive new projection system, solved the water problem by adding water motion, fish, underwater plant images, and a realistic storm. The addition of undulating gossamer cloth, which created waves, added to the visual imagery.
Scott Spence and his design team did everything except reverting to the Broadway use of "merblades," wheeled footwear to allow the mermaids and fish to "float" across the stage, to making the whole fantasy aspect of the show work well.
Then, Spence cast a wonderful blend of professional and amateur actors and singers, and turned the movement and dance over to award winning choreographer Martin Céspedes, to complete the visual and aesthetic delight.
The Little Mermaid is based on the 1989 Disney film of the same name, which brought to the big screen Hans Christian Anderson's tale of a mermaid who dreams of wanting to be her true self. In contrast to many Disney heroines, Ariel's desire goes beyond finding Prince Charming, though, as is the case in most fairy tales, she does find and marry a Prince.
The script made its Broadway debut in January of 2008 and ran 685 performances and fifty previews. The Beck show is an interpretation developed in 2012 which strongly stresses that Ariel's ambitions are bigger than the search for a man to complete her, moving Disney into the more modern era.
As the tale starts, Ariel (Kathleen Rooney), her side-kick, Flounder (J. R. Heckman), her sisters, the fish and crustations of the sea, frolic through the "Overture" and "The World Above." Meanwhile, Prince Eric (Shane Patrick O'Neill) and his adviser, Grimsby (Brian Pedaci) are aboard a ship at sea and discuss in the song, "Fathoms Below," the mythical merfolk who live under the sea.
Much to the delight of King Triton (Darryl Lewis), the court composer, Sebastian (Wesley Allen), a fuss-budgeting crab, has the Mersisters, Triton's daughters, minus the always daydreaming Ariel, sing "Daughter of Triton."
Eric, aboard ship, hears a lovely voice, is immediately captivated by the sound, thus laying the groundwork for his eventual pursuit for the source of the music. It, of course, is Ariel.
A storm, Eric being saved by his yet unrecognized lady love, Ariel, who is fascinated by the "real" world, the plotting by Ursula to play revenge on Triton for taking away her "deserved" inheritance as the equal controller of the seas, the conflict between King Triton and Ariel for her breaking the rule against contact between merfolk and the human world, a deal between Ariel and Ursula in which the young beauty exchanges her singing voice for legs to replace her mermaid tail thus becoming a human, Ariel and Eric spending time together, (spoiler alert!) a conflict between Ariel, Triton and Ursula in which the magic seashell is broken and the bad aunt is destroyed, Eric proposing marriage, the declaration of peace between humans and the merfolk, and, as in all good fairy tales, the royal joining in marriage of Ariel and Eric takes place.
The stage version, much to the frustration of some of the little 'uns in the audience, one of whom was heard whining, "That's not the way it was in the movie!" makes some changes from the film. The main alterations include that an initial shark chase was dropped, more emphasis on the conflict between King Triton and his exiled sister, Ursula, and Ursula's spying on Ariel, instead of being via the magic seashell, is done by her henchmen, Flotsam and Jetsam. In a major change, Ursula's ultimate destruction, thus freeing Ariel from a nasty spell, is completed when the magic seashell is destroyed. It was the latter that elicited the whine from the chiffon dressed little stickler for the movie's version of happenings.
The Beck production is well conceived, creative and a delight for young and old. The staging is magical, the visual elements far above anything done on local theatre stages due to the encompassing electronic visuals. Martin Céspedes has outdone himself with creative, stimulating choreography which covers calypso, ballroom, soft-shoe, line dancing, and some balletic moments.
The cast is point-on. Lovely Kathleen Rooney, a hometown girl and Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre grad, was born to play a Disney heroine, which she has done on professional stages. She has a lovely presence, a well-trained singing voice, and acts and dances with complete believability.
Sean Patrick O'Neil makes for a charming Prince Eric. Well known for his many appearances in Musical Theatre Project concerts, he has a strong voice well displayed in "Her Voice" and "One Step Closer."
Natalie Blalock knows how to play bad, and her Ursula is bad to the core. Her version of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" made her an enemy of everyone in the audience. Even in the curtain call she was growling at the audience, scaring the little kids in the first couple of rows into utter panic.
Darryl Lewis, he of huge voice and physical presence, was King Triton right-on. Zachary Vedermann (Scuttle), Wesley Allen (Sebastian) and Robert Pierce (Chef Louis) delighted the audience.
J. R. Heckman, winner of the 2016 Playhouse Square's Dazzle Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance of Donkey in Solon High School's Shrek the Musical, is an especially talented young performer who sings, dances and acts with total competence. His Flounder was absolutely charming. Watch for this kid's name in Broadway lights.
Douglas Puskas is not only an excellent scenic designer, who created a set for this complicated musical, but must be a master logo practitioner. The Beck stage has no backstage, wing space or fly gallery. How he managed to fit and figure out how to move the stage pieces in place with ease and proficiency is impressive.
Jeff Herrmann's lighting added many specially needed effects and, for the first time in many a musical, the sound system, this time designed by Carlton Guc, actually made the performance audible, with no squeaks, squeals or dead spots.
The costumes, provided by Music Theatre Wichita, were outstanding.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Little Mermaid is a total delight and absolutely a must see for anyone who likes well-performed and conceived fantasy musicals. What a wonderful evening of theater for audiences of all ages.
THE LITTLE MERMAID is scheduled to run through December 31, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org