BWW Review: Murfreesboro's Best Ever? THE LITTLE MERMAID Stakes A Claim for the Title

BWW Review: Murfreesboro's Best Ever? THE LITTLE MERMAID Stakes A Claim for the Title
Tori Kocher, Nick True and Brooke Bucher in The Little Mermaid

There's absolutely no need to equivocate, make comparisons or to otherwise water down this particularly judgmental opinion: The Little Mermaid - the stage version of the Disney musical about a gamine sea creature who longs to become human which is now onstage at Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts through June 24 - is the best show we've ever seen among the many CFTA productions reviewed over the years. Congratulations to direct Mark David Williams, musical director Nate Paul, choreographer Brittany Griffin and costumer Lisa McLaurin for their remarkable achievements that, combined, lift this oft-produced title from the stage-bound to far loftier heights of theater excellence.

And if confession is indeed good for the soul (and I tend to think it is), perhaps it should be pointed out that up until last Saturday night - when I watched CFTA's splendid ensemble of actors bring the fictional characters to life with unbridled energy and enough glee to power several high school show choirs to victory in whatever competition they might enter - you should be aware that it was my first time ever seeing The Little Mermaid on stage. In fact, not being so inclined to seek out animated films about Disney would-be princesses, I've never see it onscreen either. I was, truth be told, a Little Mermaid virgin until witnessing the Williams-led company strutting their stuff so effectively in the 'Boro.

With lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, music by Alan Menken and book by Doug Wright, The Little Mermaid has the legit bona fides to claim its place in the annals of American musical theater and it does so with a delightfully engaging tale of the red-haired Ariel and her somewhat misguided and ill-informed exploits on both land and sea, and the story is peopled (if you will) by memorable characters who present all manner of conflict along the way.

It is, in short, a rollicking good time that shines the spotlight on hard-working and dedicated community theater performers with seemingly boundless energy and commitment to entertaining their audiences. And that's most commendable, to my way of thinking, and deserving of all the accolades one might give. Does it help that I haven't seen 3,218 other productions of The Little Mermaid? No doubt. But even that has little impact upon my recollection of a fine time at the theater last weekend.

BWW Review: Murfreesboro's Best Ever? THE LITTLE MERMAID Stakes A Claim for the Title
Kelli Turner, Russell Forbes, Denise Parton
and Brooke Bucher

After almost 40 years of writing about theater and sharing my opinions about what I've witnessed it is often easy to write some throwaway lines about commitment, energy and focus - but when it's so obviously apparent in every performance by every actor onstage (regardless of their level of experience or even talent, to be honest), then it must be acknowledged.

Griffin's choreography is rousing and raucously theatrical, filling the entire house with wonderful movement. Todd Seage's lighting design illuminates the theater with dramatic effect and John Frost Jr.'s sound design is laudable, while the stunning set design (which includes a revolving stage that ensures scene transitions are realized quickly, for the most part) is bright and colorful - and ideal for the story being told.

Williams' crackerjack team of performers is led by Belmont University musical theater major Brooke Bucher in the title role. Bucher gives a thoughtful portrayal of Ariel that seems unfettered by stagey artifice and helps to make her character far more appealing than even the script does. Her lovely voice is perfect for "Part of Your World," perhaps the best-known title from the show's ingratiatingly fun musical score, and "If Only," her character's anthem of longing and girlish desire. More importantly, her interactions with other characters in the play cleverly shows off her impressive acting chops.

BWW Review: Murfreesboro's Best Ever? THE LITTLE MERMAID Stakes A Claim for the Title
Dakota Green, Ian Hamilton and Don O. Henry

Bucher is paired with young Ian Hamilton, in fine voice as terra firma-bound Prince Eric, who cuts a handsome figure as Ariel's romantic lead. Hamilton's performance of "Her Voice" is lovely and his duet with Bucher on "One Step Closer" is romantic, yet chaste (which can be like threading a needle when lesser talents are involved) and credit is due musical director Paul (who gets his own moment in the spotlight as Chef Louis) for his obvious care in working with the coterie of actors involved in The Little Mermaid.

Among the standouts of Williams' superb ensemble of supporting characters are the always appealing Caleb Mitchell, who makes the most of every time onstage as Sebastian, a crab who speaks with a decided Jamaican rhythm (although I would've sworn he was Scottish in the play's early going, which was fine by me, considering I was unaware Seb was supposed to be West Indian). Tori Kocher is a sheer delight as the seagull Scuttle, whose malapropisms are sometimes groan-worthy, but when delivered by Kocher (who has terrific comic timing) seem to always hit the mark. Nolan Budgewater II is imperious and regal as Ariel's concerned father, King Triton; Russell Forbes and Leah Williams are wonderfully arch and over-the-top as Flotsam and Jetsam; and Nick True is charmingly clumsy (or is it clumsily charming?) as Flounder, the aptly named fish whose adoration of Ariel is palpable throughout. True's performance of "She's In Love" with the mersisters provides one of the evening's musical highlights.

As Ariel's sextet of mersisters, each engaging and memorable in her own way, Lindsay Wortham, Emily Blackburn, Hanna Mansfield, Sophie Young, Aurora Boe and Karisha Glover provide a lift, both musically and comedically, with their performances that are unique in their individuality, but which meld together seamlessly.

But leave it to Kelli Turner to essentially walk off with the entire production with her rather sexy portrayal of the evil Ursula, whose machinations nearly upend King Triton's rule of his kingdom and renders Ariel impotent, her glorious voice lost. Turner rejects the easier journey upon which her characterization could have taken - instead of creating a far more comical Ursula, she instead manages to keep her believable and genuine (in the way that animated villainesses can be only when played by capable actors) and stops the show with her performances of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and "Daddy's Little Angel."

BWW Review: Murfreesboro's Best Ever? THE LITTLE MERMAID Stakes A Claim for the Title
Caleb Mitchell, Brooke Bucher and Nick True

Costumer Lisa McLaurin and her creative squad dress the myriad characters - whether they are land-bound or sea-going - in a colorful array of costumes and we suspect there is an area-wide shortage of feathers, sequins and bugle beads due to their herculean efforts.

There are only a few performances left (including a Saturday matinee that comes replete with tea and cookies with Ariel and her entourage) of The Little Mermaid and tickets, no doubt, are at a premium, but it's well worth whatever it takes to ensure your place in the audience.

The Little Mermaid. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Music by Alan Menken. Book by Doug Wright. Directed by Mark David Williams. Musical direction by Nate Paul. Choreography by Brittany Griffin. Presented by the Center for the Arts, Murfreesboro. Through June 24. For details, go to www.boroarts.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

photos by Natasha Jones

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