BWW Review: 5th Avenue's THE LITTLE MERMAID is Swimmingly Magical
The original animated film of "Disney's The Little Mermaid" is arguably one of the best of the Disney canon. With songs written by the incredible Alan Menken and Howard Ashman it marked the rebirth of the Disney animated musicals. The original conversion of it into a Broadway musical was not so great. With bad staging and flow, achieving the illusion of swimming by putting the actors on Heelys (shoes with wheels in the heels) so they would glide across stage, and additional songs from Menken and Glenn Slater (owing to the passing of the great Howard Ashman) the show lost much of it's core cleverness and heart in favor of the cliché and gimmicky. Now there's a new version with a reworked book and score and much improved staging which is currently being offered at the 5th Avenue Theatre and while it still may not have that magical greatness of the original film it does manage a magic of its own largely due to some new stage magic and a stellar cast including an Ariel (Diana Huey) who is the most layered, honest, real and still adorable Disney Princess ever.
If you're unfamiliar with Disney's take on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, then you must not have kids as most parents can sing right along with the movie due to incessant viewings. But we have Ariel (Huey), a headstrong mermaid and youngest daughter to Triton (Steve Blanchard), the King of the Seas. Ariel is obsessed with everything above her watery home especially humans. But when she saves a human, Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) from drowning and inevitably falls in love with him, her Father hits the reef (yeah, that's a bad sea life pun but the show uses it and so can I) and forbids her from going to the surface again. But determined and heartbroken she's easily lead astray by her Aunt Ursula, the evil Sea Witch (Jennifer Allen) and her eel minions Flotsam and Jetsam (Brandon Roach and Frederick Hagreen) to give up the sea as well as her beautiful voice in order for Ursula to use her magic to transform her into a human. But the catch is she must get the Prince to fall in love with her in three days or else her soul belongs to the witch. So with the help of her friends Sebastian the crab (Melvin Abston), Scuttle the seagull (Jamie Torcellini), and Flounder the fish (Connor Russell) she makes her way to the surface to woo the Prince.
As I said, the show has been much reworked since the Broadway run. The story has been tightened, the order of the songs changed and some of the Glenn Slater songs replaced by other Glenn Slater songs and while still not great the new songs do convey more story and character. For example Ursula's former show stopper, "I Want the Good Times Back" conveyed that she was evil while her new song, "Daddy's Little Angel" delves into more of why. And the staging in this new 5th Avenue version is so much better. The Heelys have been ditched for the most part. The eels still use them which makes sense as eels glide while other sea creatures swim. It's a different movement. And those swimming merfolk now have long costumes obscuring their human actor feet and when they're not undulating to indicate that they're swimming they fly. Yes, the swimmers, especially Ariel, thrillingly ascend on wires throughout the show, which works so much better than the silly Heelys.
And then there's this stellar cast. As I said, Huey is phenomenal with a stunningly rich voice and manages to sound just like the mermaid we know and then some as she manages to belt out some whoppers. Kacergis too has an incredibly rich and powerful voice and takes Eric beyond pretty Ken doll and into Dashing and layered Prince. Abston, Torcellini, and Russell are hilarious as the stalwart friends especially Abston who completely nails the energy and joy of the iconic "Under the Sea". Blanchard manages some wonderful moments as the over protective father. And Hagreen and Roach perfectly back up the deliciously bad Allen who manages to put her own devilish spin on the Sea Witch that, while different from what we're used to, completely works and shows off a new aspect of the character. And I have to mention Dane Stokinger's hilarious turn in a fat suit as the rotund Chef Louis who gleefully milks every sidesplitting moment of "Les Poissons".
So this new version complete with gorgeous sets from Kenneth Foy and beautifully vibrant costumes from Amy Clark and Mark Koss definitely improves on the previous and makes for quite a good time, especially (I'm sure) for the younger members of the audience. Although it seemed like the older audience members with no kids in tow were enjoying the hell out of it as well if the woman behind me singing along (out of key) to "Part of Your World" was any indication. And so with my three letter rating system I give the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "Disney's The Little Mermaid" a quite satisfied YAY. Still doesn't overshadow the feelings I have for the original but I doubt anything ever will.
Oh and as an addendum I want to point out the wonderful charity tie in the 5th Avenue Theatre is doing with the show. In their own words, "Ariel transforms from flippers to feet, so The 5th is partnering with Treehouse to collect children's shoes for foster children in King County during the run of "Disney's The Little Mermaid". Bring shoes to any performance (or to the Box Office at any point during the run) and you'll receive a discount on our upcoming production of "The Secret Garden".
"Disney's The Little Mermaid" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through December 31st. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.