BWW Reviews: THE LITTLE MERMAID at Paper Mill Playhouse


Many childless theatre-goers might hear the words 'family-friendly' and tend to avoid a show like The Little Mermaid, but after witnessing the opening night at Paper Mill Playhouse I can tell you they would miss a wonderful production if they skip this one. From the moment the orchestra starts the overture conducted by Craig Barna, one can sense the thrill from the audience members of all ages for this show that tells the story of the mermaid who simply wishes she could leave the ocean floor and be part of the world on land.

Based on the 1989 animated film, a Broadway production was mounted in 2008 and ran for a year and a half. The musical contained songs from the film by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, but more songs were written by Menken and Glenn Slater to fill out an entire evening and accompany a book by Doug Wright. Paper Mill has a brand new production of the show with a revamped script, additional songs and a fresh look to the entire show.

It was my week of family-friendly theater as I saw both Annie and Matilda on Broadway within a few days of each other and happy to top it all off with this production of Mermaid. Having never seen it on Broadway, I can't compare the changes in the new script. But I can tell you this production is beautifully imagined in an underwater world full of vibrant colors, aqueous movements, and dazzling visuals. Director Glenn Casale, choreographer John MacInnis, and Flying Sequence Choreographer Paul Rubin use dance, flying, and everything imaginable to take the audience to the depths of the sea. The underwater actors continue to move their bodies so that we always get a feeling of them pushing against water. The ingenious device of using flying to illustrate swimming is pure magic against the gorgeous scenic design of Kenneth Foy and lighting magic of Charlie Morrison.

Jessica Grové is no stranger to playing a beloved character when at 15 she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at Madison Square Garden. Her resume has grown with numerous Broadway credits and she conveys the Disney princess with such heart and connection to the source material. Her soaring voice, charming smile and fluid moments as Ariel had all the little girls seated around me captivated. I was amazed that an actress can belt out "Part of Your World" the way she does while flying over the stage and writhing her body as if swimming through the sea. I was very curious to know how the show would handle a lead role that spends much of the second half with no voice (since Ariel gives it to Ursula). Thankfully the writing team has worked all of that out in a very clever way and we get to continue the flight of the mermaid who longs to be with people.

In filling out the show for the stage, the writers have given Prince Eric a much larger role and Nick Adams is a prince come to life! I've always enjoyed Adams in all he has done, including his last Broadway role in Priscilla, but here we get to savor that rich voice of his as much more music has been given to his character. Dancing skills (that Adams has displayed in numerous Broadway shows) coupled with a boyish quality on the cusp of manhood, this prince exudes charm. A personal favorite performer of mine takes on the role of the evil Ursula and Liz McCartney rightfully treats it as if it was written for her. Her comic timing. Her exceptional vocal range. Her tentacle choreography maneuvered by her henchmen Scott Leiendecker and Sean Patrick Doyle (Flotsam and Jetsam). The three of them capture the essence of the film in the movement of her appendages creating all types of images while continually giving us the feel of fluidity. Each time the three appear, an electrifying magic occurs that ends in cheers from the audience.

Sebastian the crab is a favorite in the movie version and Alan Mingo, Jr. has deliciously made the role his own. He hits notes I never knew possible for a man. He slides his way across the stage attempting to keep up with all those swimming around him and divinely punctuates scenes with a comic look, laugh or a humorous cry of Ariel's name. Edward Watts is strapping as King Triton and adds the heart that all Disney productions must have (as there is always a father and no mother in those movies). He has a wonderfully commanding voice (to match his imposing physique) and the quartet he sings in Act II with Sebastian, Ariel and Eric is simply sublime. Timothy Shew (who was one of my favorite Jean Valjeans on Broadway) does a great comic turn as Chef Louis and we still get to hear that beautiful tenor voice. Christian Probst as the affectionate Flounder and Matt Allen as the seagull Scuttie both bring wonderful warmth to their characters that children have grown to adore ever since the film first appeared on the scene.

The entire ensemble in this show all get moments to shine from the mermaid sisters to the men who perform a belly laugh routine with a table and a crab. They are a hard working bunch as they switch between land and sea changing in and out of costumes and wigs fabulously designed by Amy Clark, Mark Koss, and Leah J. Loukas. There was much said about the Broadway show using heelies (skates) which always allowed audiences to see the legs of all the sea creatures. The costumes for this production are stunning and cover everything until it is time for things to be revealed. Such a better way to go about the telling of a mermaid who longs for legs.

This is a fast paced, eye-catching show that should not be missed. Disney's The Little Mermaid will be performed eight times a week running until June 30, 2013, Wednesday through Sunday. Family-Friendly Performance Schedule: Wednesday at 7:00pm, Thursday at 1:30pm and 7:00pm, Friday at 7:00pm, Saturday at 1:30pm and 7:00pm and Sunday at 1:30pm and 7:00pm. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973.376.4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at The theater will host a special, Autism/Sensory-friendly performance of Disney's The Little Mermaid on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, at 4:00PM. This performance is designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities, and planned in cooperation with Autism New Jersey and Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers.

Photo Credits: Billy Bustamante and Jerry Dalia

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