BWW Review: OKC Broadway Presents The National Tour Of THE LITTLE MERMAID At The Civic Center Music Hall
Okay, let's just get real for a moment: if one approaches this show as an adult and compares it with the canon of theatrical literature, this a production which often falls flat. However, in comparison to average children's entertainment (which is clearly the producers' targeted demographic) it holds up well.
First, I'll give my children's review...
"Look at all the colors! The costumes are BEAUTIFUL. Ariel sings like an angel! Ohmigosh, Prince Eric is really handsome. Sebastian and Scuttle are so silly and funny. Ursula was pretty scary...but not TOO scary - she was still funny too. It was super fun! Can I get a t-shirt?"
So, does it check all the boxes? Absolutely. Your average elementary aged kid will be thoroughly and utterly charmed. But the parents who brought them? That might be a different story.
Let's start off with what did work: the design elements of the show are lovely. Leah J. Loukas' Wig & Hair design perfectly mimics the expected icons of the cartoon without looking "cartoony" onstage. Amy Clark and Mark Ross' costumes flowed beautifully, giving the illusion of underwater movement, especially in the flying sequences, choreographed by Paul Rubin. Charlie Morrison's lighting was sumptuous and vibrant; Kenneth Foy's sets opulent and polished. Ed Chapman's sound design in collaboration with Colin R. Freeman's musical direction ensure the orchestra and cast sound flawless.
But now for the elements which prove a bit more shaky: this touring production (not officially a Disney Theatricals show, but a co-production of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and Kansas City Starlight Theatre) is heavy on style but light on substance.
Fans of the original animated film will notice some pretty major plot differences, and fans of the original Broadway production will notice new songs and musical arrangements. I don't find all of these changes to be entirely effective: the book by Doug Wright, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner for his other work, seems to be playing to the lowest common denominator here, often settling for cheap jokes rather than character development. Any major threat from Ursula is neutered...we don't want to really scare the kids, after all. The new songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are serviceable - none rising to the iconic level of "Part Of Your World" but never detracting from the show either.
One of the things I find so solid about most classic Disney productions - whether they be films or theatre - is how "Uncle Walt" provided classic entertainment for the whole family. There were moments of silliness to entertain the kids, sure... but a pure, beating heart at the core to keep everyone engaged.
So, how does this LITTLE MERMAID fare for the grownups in the room? The show never stops... a runaway train with an almost frenetic energy. While the target audience is children, I feel that the pace of this show doesn't give these kids enough credit. Most kids' "Honesty Meter" is well-calibrated: they can tell when they're being pandered to. Once this show starts, it rarely slows down. Director Glenn Casale (whose previous production of PETER PAN I found to be a true masterpiece) has taken the old theatre adage of "louder, faster, funnier" the next level. In this age of social media and short attention spans, Casale makes sure there's always some sort of movement or flashing light to grab every child's attention. However, I feel that the storytelling suffers from this approach. Without many quieter moments, there's no time for the material to affect the audience or truly move them emotionally. One of my favorite moments of the show was the "If Only" Quartet, where Ariel, Sebastian, Prince Eric, and King Triton were given the opportunity to simply stand still and sing. Each in an individual spotlight, the performers brought out their character's emotional journey in a way that allowed the audience to fully relate.
These performers by the way are all supremely talented, with dozens of Broadway shows to their credit. Even if I felt they might have been instructed to push every moment, they still allow their glorious voices to shine through. Diana Huey as the titular Ariel possesses a crystalline broadway belt, which she really gets to showcase in "Beyond My Wildest Dreams" and the now-standard "Part Of Your World." She balances teenage rebellion with Disney-Princess® Innocence™ yet manages to truly pull it all off with ease and grace. Eric Kunze - a veteran performer with many Broadway and touring credits, happens to have the iconic "Prince Eric hair" down pat - without a wig, mind you. Physically, he's the spitting image of the cartoon, and his renditions of "One Step Closer" and "Her Voice" shows off his own shimmering voice with aplomb. Jennifer Allen brings Ursula to life with vigor, yet also allows the material to speak for itself, underplaying many moments with comic subtlety to great effect. Dane Stonkinger's cameo as Chef Louis made "Les Poissons" one of the highlights of the evening, taking one of the silliest moments and infusing it with some actual motivated comedy. The rest of the characters and ensemble all perform admirably...though without much excitement to make any moments especially memorable: Steve Blanchard as King Triton is stern yet fatherly, Melvin Abston as Sebastian is lovably scattered, Allen Fitzpatrick as Grimsby is over-protective yet kind, Marco Ramos as Flounder is aww-shucks adorable, Jamie Torcellini as Scuttle is charmingly silly - all of them bring out the plot elements and tell the story, but they don't do a whole lot to elevate it.
And maybe that's okay? While I wanted something...someone...anyone to engage me on a deeper level, maybe that's not what this show is for. Maybe your kids (and perhaps many of the grandparents who bring them) will be unlikely to notice any of my critiques and are sure to be utterly charmed by the spectacle. While it doesn't run in the same league as the classic Disney films, this production does its job: providing fluffy entertainment for an evening out after school, getting through everything as quickly as possible to make sure the kids get back home in bed to be ready for school tomorrow. All in all, I would say this is a rushed production of a show with some structural flaws, yet performed by a cast of fantastically talented singers.
THE LITTLE MERMAID, presented by OKC Broadway September 5-10 at the Civic Center Music Hall. For tickets to upcoming performances, visit www.OKCbroadway.com