BWW Review: DISNEY'S THE LITTLE MERMAID at The Des Moines Playhouse
The Des Moines Playhouse has been providing families with a holiday musical for countless years. These light hearted shows such as last year's Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the year before bring a huge crowd to the Playhouse including those who usually don't head out to the theatre during the rest of the year. This year's Disney's The Little Mermaid (directed by Maxwell Schaeffer) is no different. It is somewhat of an unspoken rule in community theatre that if it's Disney, it sells. This magic word, in combination with the team that made the Cloris Award-sweeping Young Frankenstein last summer, ought to make the Playhouse's production a surefire hit. Luckily, the math adds up for the Playhouse even if the production lacks cohesion at times and is not the best musical adaptation Disney has created.
The Little Mermaid dates back to the 1830s with Hans Christian Andersen's story about a mermaid who longs to live with the humans. After some heavy Disney editing, we have The Little Mermaid we know and love today. If it has been a while since you've seen the movie, a mermaid named Ariel (Savannah Trotter) is fascinated by the human world and soon falls in love with a human named Prince Eric (Johnny Kroll) after saving him from a storm. She disobeys her father King Triton's (Jerry Stoner) strict orders to stay away from the human world and signs a contract with the sea witch Ursula (Jackie Schmillen) that will allow her to walk on land with Eric, but she will lose her soul if she doesn't kiss him in three days. Of course, it wouldn't be Disney without a few sidekicks including the guardian crab Sebastian (Blake Clyde) and friendly fish Flounder (Jackson Michael Gabby).
When thinking about other Disney movie-to-stage adaptations, huge box office hits come to mind like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. The Little Mermaid remains one of the least successful productions Disney has created. In fact, the original production that replaced the smash hit Beauty and the Beast struggled to find an audience during the 2008 economic crisis. This was partially aided by the uneven and bloated book and over ten new and somewhat unnecessary songs that drag the show down. Of course, this is by no means the fault of the Playhouse, but it is unfortunate that this production hits some of these speed bumps the original did throughout the show, which causes it to clunk along until a crowd favorite brings the audience back to the action.
But, when these crowd favorite songs come, excited gasps can be heard. The biggest stand out moments from the Playhouse's production come during these moments of joy where the costumes (Angela Lampe), scenic design and lighting design (Nicholas Amundson and Mandy Kay Heath), choreography (Megan Helmers) and musical performances (music director Brenton Brown) come together in harmony. Especially good are the songs "Poor Unfortunate Souls" sung by Jackie Schmillen's fiercely theatrical and scene (maybe even show) stealing Ursula and "Kiss the Girl" by Blake Clyde's charming Sebastian surrounded by clever costumes. Savannah Trotter also provides a perfectly princess-y rendition of "Part of Your World" early on in the show. The young girls next to me especially liked that part and gleefully sang along with Trotter. Also fun is the second act opener "Positioovity" featuring excellent tapping seagulls and led by Christopher Rozenboom as Scuttle. These moments make the audience see through the faults of the show and feel the magic that the original movie supplied.
Other times, the design elements of the production clash together. In some ways it seemed as if all the production elements were too much all at once in order to grasp the attention of the young audience during more boring parts of the show. Whimsical waves move in the air as multicolored lights flash and actors in choral headdresses and skating shoes twirl flags while a projection screen in the back swirls and bubbles. This screen is perhaps the most confusing aspect of the design and often takes away from the action on stage instead of aiding the show. Combine this all with constant arm movement from the aquatic characters, and the spectacle on stage is all too much, even for a Disney production. Luckily, as mentioned earlier, not every moment in the show is like this and when the production hits a balance, the results are glorious.
Yet, family spectacle is the name of the game when creating a successful holiday show. Although this production of The Little Mermaid does struggle with the maneuvering around the slow moments in the script and bringing a cohesive look, it does present true moments of magic and joy that remind the audience of the Disney classic we all know and love. With a holiday show like this, all that matters is that both the kids and adults are enjoying themselves. If the young girls in front of me belting "A Part of Your World" and adults chuckling at the pun-ridden script are any sign of the success of the production, it is a safe bet the Playhouse has another winner on their hands.
Disney's The Little Mermaid
The Des Moines Playhouse
Dec. 1 -23, 2017