BWW Reviews: Theatre Under The Stars Presents a Glittering Production of THE LITTLE MERMAID, Despite Floundering Script

By: Jun. 18, 2014
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Liz McCartney as Ursula

Most of us have seen and loved the animated classic, "The Little Mermaid", and if you see this production it's inevitable that you'll go to the theatre armed with preconceived ideas and expectations. Directed by Glenn Casale, with a book by Doug Wright, Theatre Under The Stars provides a warm and visually interesting production that does it's best to compensate for a less than stellar script. This is a new and improved version of the original Broadway production, which, after closing on Broadway, went through two years of revision and calibration. The beloved original songs from the animated feature are all here, written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Some inspired additional songs by Ashman, Menken, and lyricist Glenn Slater have been added- "She's In Love" and "Her Voice" are especially memorable new tunes.

Theatre Under The Stars presents a strong cast led by Jessica Grové, who is adorable as Ariel and checks all the boxes for a theatre ingenue- a lovely soprano "head" voice, a million dollar smile, and a good emotional range. She is especially poignant in the scene when she sings the "Part of Your World" reprise to an unconscious Prince Eric. Grove handles every scene with aplomb, and is especially fun to watch after she gets her human legs.

Eric Kunze plays Prince Eric, and with his pitch-perfect voice and easy stage presence he is easy to like and root for. One of the best musical moments of the show is Kunze singing "Her Voice". His portrayal is a nice balance between lovelorn man and upper class royal.

Alan Mingo Jr. plays the unappreciated and hapless crab, Sebastian. His hilarious facial expressions elicit more than a few laughs from the audience and his gorgeous, resonant voice is a pleasure to listen to, particularly in the well-loved "Under the Sea" and "Kiss The Girl".

And everybody loves a villain. If you're like me, any time I'm watching a sweet tale of romance I'm begging for the villain, and Liz McCartney, as the devilish Ursula, delivers a darkly delicious version. McCartney owns the stage with her huge theatrical presence and artistry. I couldn't help but wonder what she could do with a script that does justice to her talent. The writing puts unnecessary reins on this fabulous character, but McCartney pushes against them admirably. Watching her is a complete treat, and with her big, satisfying voice, and saucy comedic timing she brings to mind another Divine Miss M, Bette Midler.

King Triton, played by Steve Blanchard, has good stage chemistry with the other actors, but I wanted more pomp and circumstance in his portrayal. I wanted to see him high up on a throne, owning his royalty. The scene when Triton destroys Ariel's treasures isn't as dramatic or affective as it was in the animated feature. The script does a disservice to the part. He is rendered a little reticent and defeated.

The mersisters, played by Kristine Bennet, Audrey Cardwell, Marjorie Failoni, Julie Kavanaugh, Sarah Meahl, and Jessica Wockenfuss are fun and felicitous. "She's in Love" is a bright, funny addition to the original score. The snarkiness of some of the mersisters is enjoyable and adds a much-appreciated spice to the script.

Bryan Ray Norris nails it as a perfectly-cast Chef Louie, with his full voice and jovial smile.

Flounder (Christian Probst) and Scuttle (Matt Allen) round out the cast as Ariel's close friends. Christian Probst is endearing as the childlike Flounder. Matt Allen's goofy portrayal of Scuttle is silly fun and the tap dance in the musical number "Positoovity" is a delight for children and adults.

Choreographer John MacInnes does a bang up job of creating pleasing and energetic choreography, particularly in the songs, "Positoovity" and "Under The Sea".

Amy Clark and Mark Moss costume the show with interesting and imaginative skill. Ursula's octopus ball gown is sublime. Ariel's tail fin is simply ethereal, especially in the scene where she sheds it to acquire legs.The costumes were generally beautiful or interesting, but the odd maid costumes in the second act had me puzzled. Were the maids supposed to be big-bottomed geese? And some of the costumes in "Kiss The Girl" were a bit too transparent for the audience demographic. There were more than a few dancers who appeared to be topless. If "The Little Mermaid" isn't a kid's show, then I don't know what is.

The sets, designed by Kenneth Foy, are magical and fun to look at, especially the scrim and backdrops of "water" that Ariel swims through. "Kiss the Girl" was utterly beautiful and charming with it's moving rowboat. Ursula's dark lair is poisonous magic. But the royal ship, used by Eric and company, seemed a little small and cramped, especially in scenes where several men are crammed into it.

There are many moments in this production that are entertaining and compelling, but there are weak spots in the script where the pacing and writing of the show detract from the talent onstage. Still, this is a colorful and talent-filled version of the classic. Take the kids- They won't be disappointed.

Photo credit: Bruce Bennett