BWW Review: THE LITTLE MERMAID Enchants at Musical Theatre West
Currently docked at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach through July 28 is Musical Theater West's wonderfully vibrant new regional production of THE LITTLE MERMAID, Disney's Broadway stage adaptation of their hit 1989 animated classic, which itself was adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
A magical example of stage craft for young and old, this enchanting new local production directed by Danny Pelzig is purposely designed to be a treat for all senses, filled with vivid visuals and dazzling production values that offer audiences a slightly refreshed (and expanded) theatrical take on a beloved, quite sacred piece of cinema.
That original 1989 film---arguably the first film in Disney's late-century animation renaissance---holds deep-rooted, fond, cherished memories for its fans, so any changes to the property are always a bit of a gamble (just witness the recent online, often ugly furor over the casting news for the planned live-action movie remake of the cartoon).
Luckily, the stage version---while filled with many alterations and additions in order to take the material of the shorter film and make it fill a two-hours-plus stand-alone stage entity---is essentially almost uniformly the same as the movie in spirit, from the stage version's color palette down to the line delivery of its myriad of characters. The differences are, sure, quite subtle, but plentiful enough to impact the show overall.
The original film, of course, prominently featured a memorable songbook with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman. Those now history-etched songs, thankfully, have been revived for the stage version, mingling alongside newer songs by Menken and new lyricist Glenn Slater. A new book by Doug Wright is also thrown into the mix, expanding a few backstories and reimagining certain scenes to accommodate the limitations imposed by live theater
The resulting show achieves a cheerful, pleasant, and often charming hybrid that honors the original Disney-esque qualities of the film, but also shows what one may call a "director's cut"---wherein the new "extras" expand the musical even further in size, elements, and thematic mood.
Tasked in the title role, MTW has found its Ariel in the lovely and talented Katharine McDonough, whose beautiful voice and matching persona brings some relatable humanity to her fictional undersea alter ego, a strong-minded young mermaid who has long been fascinated by things beyond her reach... primarily, humans and their artifacts. McDonough's touching rendition of "Part of Your World" is perfectly delivered as wishful longing and teen angst.
As the familiar tale goes, Ariel---the youngest and (perhaps) most musically-blessed daughter of the Ocean world's King Triton (the commanding Marc Cedric Smith)---yearns to learn more and explore far outside her bubble, much to the worry and disdain of her family and her best friend Flounder (adorable Connor Marsh), who in this stage iteration now harbors a secret crush on Ariel, too (he's been "aged up" to be a teen-like Ariel, perhaps to lessen the weirdness factor).
Meanwhile, up above on the ocean surface, hottie Prince Eric (the dashing David Burnham, whose singing voice will melt your heart) is also facing some growing pains of his own. Soon to be crowned the King of his kingdom, he must quickly find a potential bride to marry. Big problem: he'd rather set sail out on the open sea for high adventure rather than be stuck ruling from a castle. This, naturally, annoys the patience of his trusted confidant/butler-valet Grimsby (Martin Kildare), who vows to keep Eric on the right path to achieve this goal.
When a freak storm dooms a ship carrying Prince Eric, causing him to fall overboard and sink, Ariel spots her crush and rescues him---a huge violation in the mer-folk world. But it's too late... Ariel has fallen deeply in love with Eric. Eric has fallen deeply in love... with the unknown mysterious lady with the beautiful singing voice who rescued him and left him alone on the beach. He, of course, has a new goal: find that girl! Ariel's new goal: to, well, be part of his world.
Back down to the "mysterious fathoms below," King Triton is troubled by Ariel's continued strange obsession with the surface world, causing her to miss, among other things, an important musical performance. The King's anger stems mostly because he vehemently despises humans as a collective species. Apparently, Triton believes there is a strong possibility that humans are to blame for Ariel's mothers' mysterious death, which still haunts him to this day.
Eventually, King Triton asks his trusted court composer Sebastian the crab (the fantastic Jalon Matthews) to spy on and look after Ariel and to try to stop her from carrying through any more questionable decisions. For his part, Sebastian tries to convince Ariel---through song and dance and a colorful production number---that staying and living "Under The Sea" is her best option for true happiness. It is, after all, better down here where her kind belongs. Matthews and the show's ensemble do not disappoint with their high-energy Caribbean-flavored production number that alone is worth the trek to Long Beach.
All this family drama is, of course, an opportunistic way for the evil Sea Witch, Ursula (the deliciously devilish Cynthia Ferrer, a welcome sight with each scene she enters) to swoop in and meddle in the conflict. You see, it turns out that Ursula all this time had been slowly plotting revenge against [SPOILER ALERT] her brother, Triton (!), who years earlier had banished his sister Ursula for some pretty serious crimes. Stripped of her previous powers, Ursula turns to dark magic and the help of her slick creepy eel companions Flotsam (Jacob Hoff) and Jetsam (Matt Braver) to lure angry, naive Ariel to her tentacles so that she can offer her a spell that can make her dreams come true.
Ariel is more determined than ever to go up to the surface, especially after the King (thanks to a certain tattle-tale crab) discovers her stash of surface goodies. She turns to Ursula and agrees to her terms: Ariel gets legs to walk on the surface, Ursula gets a hold of Ariel's amazing voice to power her little shell trinket.
Will Ariel be able to get Eric to like her back if she can't provide the one thing he's looking for in the girl that saved him... her beautiful singing voice?
A family-friendly stage musical with great visual punch and a determined aim to please, MTW's LITTLE MERMAID looks and sounds great as a stage musical and should please both kids and their parents in equal doses---particularly in this high-quality production that features Broadway-caliber thrills.
The eye-catching visual of characters floating in mid-air (via very visible wirework) to simulate swimming (or flying in the case of Joe Abraham's hilarious, scene-stealing seagull Scuttle) is a magical sight, even though its machinations aren't even attempted to be hidden from view. Even while on the stage floor---which assumably represents the bottom of the ocean floor---cast members gyrate their bodies to simulate a swimming motion that, after a while, becomes second nature.
Visually, the show pops with its vibrant colors and textures, providing a fantasy-leaning underwater seascape thanks to J Branson's layered scenic design paired with Paul Black's dynamic lighting design. Leon Dobkowski's costumes keep the ensemble as colorful as the coral reef, while the reimagined characters of Flounder and Flotsam and Jetsam have an animation-inspired sheen that fits their respective characters' nuances.
Sound-wise, the show's assembled orchestra under the direction of musical director John Glaudini sounds terrific, particularly as they revive Menken and Ashman's familiar, now iconic songs like "Part of Your World," "Under the Sea," "Kiss the Girl," and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" which are beautifully recreated here. The expanded (and still hilariously over-the-top) "Les Poissons" featuring William Hartery as seafood connoisseur/crab would-be-murderer Chef Louis is a visual and musical highlight as well.
Many added new story elements (and, by extension, new songs) aren't all gems, of course. Some are unnecessary, while others help fill the new gaps or stretch sections out. The core of the story remains intact, which is good news for purists of the 1989 film.
Of the newer songs by Menken and Slater, my favorite is the rousing and endearing "She's In Love," a doo-wop, girl-group throwback ditty that's absolute fun from start to finish. Extra kudos to Ariel's sisters whose lovely voices produce some lovely harmonies on this song, proving that Triton should pay more attention. An extra special shout-out to Carlin Castellano, Elizabeth Eden, Fatima El-Bashir, Adrianna Rose Lyons, Tayler Mettra, and Christine Negherbon for such wonderful harmonies and some divalicious vocals.
Entertaining and enjoyable, MTW's fun iteration of THE LITTLE MERMAID for the stage will be a guaranteed treat for the kids---especially those interested in theater arts. Shows like these always make for a great introduction to the live performing arts for kids, while adults will enjoy the artistry and the nostalgia that harkens back to a Disney classic.
[Editorial note: We regret the misspelling of Ms. Negherbon's name as it was originally printed. We apologize for the error.]
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Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.
Performances of Musical Theatre West's production of Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID continue through Sunday, July 28, 2019 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.