BWW Reviews: New LITTLE MERMAID Still Entertains, but Fails to Fix Broadway Version

Let me start by saying that any "Little Mermaid" fan or child at heart will thoroughly enjoy the Sacramento Music Circus theatrical version of the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid." Audience members raved about the production after Tuesday night's opening, and my friend (a great fan of the original film) who doesn't normally attend theater absolutely loved it. So if you're looking for a fun night out or a magical activity for your child, you need read no further - this show is for you.

But prepare yourself. Because this reviewer did see the unsuccessful Broadway production of the musical, and because Music Circus promoted the changes it made to improve its own version, the following review will include many detailed critiques of the show. These critiques in no way diminish the great feat it is that Music Circus was able to adapt the show for its stage at all, nor are these critiques meant to imply that that the show enters a complete disaster zone. The majority of audiences will enjoy the show, and even the more critical eye can fall in love with the music and undersea magic of it all. That said, I move on to my review:

When you're dealing with a musical version of a classic like "The Little Mermaid," it becomes nearly impossible to botch the show enough to give reason for hating it. You still have all the popular songs that everyone (including one adorable little girl sitting in the back on opening night) loves to sing along with, and you still have the iconic characters that we all love so much. Still, for avid fans of the movie or those who had complaints about the Broadway version of "Mermaid," the Sacramento Music Circus production of "The Little Mermaid" doesn't quite live up to the hype.

Running through July 22, the musical follows the romance of a little mermaid princess who falls in love with a human prince. Despite her father's warnings, Ariel makes a deal with the sea witch, Ursula, who turns Ariel into a human on the condition that she give up her voice and get the prince to kiss her within three days.

Promoters for the California Musical Theatre production boasted that the creative team had rewritten much of the Broadway script and included new songs, adding to that the fact that the only other place you can currently see the show is Holland. But the show has had regional productions since its Broadway closure, and it is already slated to play at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey next spring. Of course, Music Circus does have its new script going for it, as the new version will not likely make it to the stage again, but the Sacramento production does not stray as far from the failed Broadway production as it would like to think.

Although the changes are many, they're ineffective. We have a teenage Flounder with an adorable crush on Ariel, we get a new song for Ursula (which, to Music Circus' credit, serves the plot well and has a catchy tune), with a few of the less memorable songs from the Broadway production cut, we get mermaids with gorgeous silk fins instead of roller skate tennis shoes, and we get new key explanations leading up to an ending that veers far away from the film. But most of the elements that hurt the Broadway production remain, and a fast pace often keeps characters from developing, making it difficult for older audiences to connect with them. And that new ending? It resolves the conflict too easily, resulting in a faux girl power message.

With a staging in the round like Music Circus, you must find a way to compensate for the lack of grand sets. Music Circus does an amazing job of creating the above and below sea atmospheres, but it lacks dramatic entrances and staging. Ariel's grand transformation happens too quickly, and the way she transforms is a bit too high school stage quality for those sitting close. The rigging used to "fly" her up to the surface gives cause for excitement. But with the amount Music Circus probably paid to use the technology, audiences are left wanting more, and the lackluster staging of Ariel's transformation calls for more frequent use of the rigging.

A wickedly awesome Vicki Lewis as Ursula deserves far more than what she gets for an entrance. And due to broken mechanics, the production lost its ability to use the Music Circus stage to its full advantage. On opening night, the loss of the rotating and pop up stage especially hurt an extremely simple, albeit beautifully romantic, staging of "Kiss the Girl." Backstage hands also had trouble with moving sets into the aisles, making for distracting noises while the action remained on stage.

Fortunately, "Under the Sea" has much to its credit, with innovative jellyfish props and lovely lighting, but at the same time certain actors look a bit awkward in their tight spandex leotards, and as visually appealing as the feathery under-water costumes are, they look a bit too much like something out of a Las Vegas showgirl revue. Music Circus kept some costume designs from the Broadway production, including a fabulous Ursula costume, but many of the costumes uniquely created for this production come dangerously close to losing their magic.

But Music Circus does deserve credit for the mermaids' silk tails, which create the perfect illusion for the fantastical sea creature, and Sebastian, Scuttle and Flounder all have brilliantly innovative costumes that surpass or equal those of the Broadway production. And as poorly adapted as the script is, the production keeps many of the original movie's songs, as well as the more emotionally moving songs written by Alan Menken for the Broadway version. And a strong cast brings those songs to life. The daughters of Triton sport weak harmonies, and Ariel flounders a bit on her belting, but overall Music Circus succeeded in one of the areas the Broadway production failed: casting.

The Sacramento production treats audiences to a King Triton and Prince Eric who can actually act in addition to looking and sounding good - even if Eric Kunze (Eric) did fumble on a few of his lines and miss one song cue. Plus, Kunze sports a handsome dimple as he speaks with passion about his love of adventure and the sea. Jessica Grove perfectly embodies the innocence and excitement that endeared Ariel to so many in the film, and Grove's voice stays true to the movie's iconic vocals while bringing something new and wonderful to the character.

A fantastic supporting cast also shines throughout. Sebastian (Kevin Smith Kirkwood) and Chef Louis (Eric Gunhus) face off in a hilarious and memorable staging of "Les Poisson," and Kirkwood carries much of the show with his fabulous renditions of "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." Henry Hodges makes an adorable skater-boy Flounder, and Ben Roseberry and Scott Leiendecker slither their way around the stage as Ursula's two deliciously evil sidekick eels. The eels perform one of the best songs in the show, "Poor Child," which, sadly, does not last long. The eels light up in their "shocking" costumes, and their master comes fully equipped, tentacles and all. Jack Doyle also provides plenty of laughs as Scuttle, the brainless, but loveable seagull.

Scuttle and the Music Circus production of "The Little Mermaid" have a lot in common. If nothing else, "Mermaid" is a loveable, fun production that provides a good time and an interesting take on the film, even if it doesn't quite wow as much as the Broadway flop. Take your children, friends and family to see the all-in-all successful production. Just don't expect the perfection that, as of yet, only the movie has provided in full.


The Little Mermaid

Through July 22

Sacramento Music Circus

California Musical Theatre

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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