BWW Review: Swim on out to The New Tampa Players' THE LITTLE MERMAID at the University Area CDC
Who knew that the New Tampa Players could one-up Disney?
When Disney announced that Halle Bailey would be the new Ariel in the live action update of THE LITTLE MERMAID a couple of weeks ago, some poor unfortunate souls got their noses out of joint because Bailey is a person of color. It was a sad couple of days, where some closed-minded sea witches came out of the woodwork to complain where there should not have been any controversy. If a role can be colorblind in casting, then this should never raise an eyebrow, ever. So, good for Disney! This is where the New Tampa Players come into the mix. Long before the Disney announcement, they had cast a person of color as Ariel in their current production, and the results are astonishing. Because Patty Smithey is Ariel.
Welcome to world if you don't know THE LITTLE MERMAID, the Hans Christian Anderson story about a mermaid who pines for a prince and to shuck her fins to be human. The 1989 Disney cartoon (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater) started the second Disney animation Renaissance, leading the way for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and on and on. And the New Tampa Players have pulled out all stops in their current, lively production at the University Area CDC. It runs thru August 4th.
Director Derek Baxter, perhaps the most out-of-the-box-thinking local community theatre director, is trying something new. I heard his Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical at the Carrollwood Players was unlike anything they had ever attempted before. He's done so with THE LITTLE MERMAID as well, adding a certain Cirque de Soleil twist to the production. Performers are swinging from ropes throughout, sometimes seeming like they're auditioning for Tarzan, other times looking like they were in a rope-climbing competition in some middle school P.E. class. This twist creates some beautiful images on stage, especially in the bigger numbers, but was problematic in a couple of spots. In the key scene where Ariel saves Prince Eric, they have the young actress hanging upside down to save him. But it came off forced and clunky, not as part of the story. In this instance, it just seemed unnecessary. But I like that Baxter is attempting something bold and new, not staid, so my hat goes off to him.
Baxter's large cast of all ages features some of the more talented performers in our area.
Leading the way is Patty Smithey as Ariel. She is radiantly beautiful and her ebullient face lights up the stage. Her expressive eyes say more than many monologues. She bops with enthusiasm and yearning in the iconic "Part of Your World." Even if she sometimes doesn't fully sustain some of the big notes, her voice bursts with energy and life. We root for her to make her dreams come true; worry when her voice is "stolen"; and can't wait for her to finally hook up with Prince Eric.
My only issue with the part of Ariel has to do with the musical itself, not Smithey's fine work: I always have a problem with songs like "Beyond My Wildest Dreams" in Act 2, when Arial has no voice; yes, she is singing her thoughts, but the audience is never given a true sense of the beautiful singer who gave away her voice when this song and others are sung by her in Act 2. I know they are great songs, but they take us away from the story; script-wise, it would be a stronger show if she remained silent until she regains her gorgeous vocals. That said, Smithey sings beautifully, exudes charisma, and is simply exquisite in the demanding role.
The very talented and appropriately-named Eric Paul portrays Prince Eric, the apple of Ariel's eye, and he possesses a marvelous singing voice. However, sometimes it seemed like he was searching for the lyric or waiting for the proper note for it to begin; he must always remain in character for these moments. Also, he plays him rather entitled, which is appropriate, but we need to see what Ariel sees in him, other than it says so in the script. Why this young man? What is it about him that causes her to change her way of life to want to be with him? His "Her Voice" is finely sung, and I like the way he connects with her in "One Step Closer," but his standout vocals occur in the quartet "If Only." Unfortunately, the end of "Kiss the Girl" (gloriously sung by Sebastian) where Eric is forced away from kissing Ariel in a boat, did not work physically. It seemed that the Prince stopped trying to kiss his love before Flotsam and Jetsam's electric eel zapping sound.
James Cass stands out as Prince Eric's guardian, Grimsby, dressed in a white wig like a leftover from 1776: The Musical. But Cass brings multiple layers to the role. He has a great speaking voice, almost faux-Shakespearian, and is a joy whenever he's on the stage. Scott Paine as King Triton, donning a Statue of Liberty crown and gripping a cool lighted trident, also is quite strong. We feel his pain as he must weigh what's more important in his life: Being King of the Sea or being a father?
Some very popular shows have a character that may appear in just a single scene but are as memorable as any of the leads. Think King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, or Peron's mistress in Evita (who sings "Another Suitcase in Another Hall)," or even Pirelli in Sweeney Todd. THE LITTLE MERMAID has a doozy of a single-scene character: Chef Louis, and Eric Bohner steals the show in this brief appearance. His "Les Poissons" is one of the finest moments of the entire production, showcasing what it means to have the time of your life performing onstage and singing fake-opera. Bohner is a trip, and his Chef Louis had the audience in stitches as he chased Sebastian, ready to chop everyone's favorite big-eyed crab with a cleaver.
The Mersisters worked because each one had a specific character, each one different. Megan Guthrie, Jessica Jacobs (hitting that High C), Melissa Mastromarchi, Angelina Samreny, Erica Speranza, and Kim Wacker brought these parts to life. Special mention must go out to Ms. Speranza and Ms. Mastromarchi as standouts in their scenes (and for their great aerial work, which was also awesomely performed by Hippie Griswold and Becki Mallett).
As Flounder, sort of a mini-punk fish with an aqua mohawk, 12-year-old Jordan Hunter does an admirable job. He's like Jimmy Neutron with fins. And Mr. Hunter does something in the show that many young actors almost never do. Whether he knows it or not, he was always in character, always reacting to what was happening onstage, even when it wasn't his line. This is sometimes difficult for youthful actors to understand, but young Mr. Hunter gets it. One scene in particular showcases this: When Ariel calls Prince Eric "beautiful," Hunter's Flounder has a look of disappointment, because he was in love with Ariel. It's these little moments that make a show special. And this is what acting is all about-reacting, always in the moment, always in character. This young actor has quite a future on the stage if this is the direction that he's steering toward.
Dwuany Cannon Jr.'s Sebastian was so popular that he garnered applause the moment he entered the stage. Dressed all in red, glittering like a red neon sign, Mr. Cannon is simply stunning. All of his songs were out-of-the-park home runs. He was lots of energetic fun throughout, with amazing facial reactions. He's so good that he reminded me of a young Ken Page, which is one of the best compliments I can ever give. But can Ken Page do the splits? Mr. Cannon certainly can...and did!
Chase Reeder's Scuttle is adoringly wacky, donning an outfit that makes him look like a flamenco dancer (or should that be a flamingo dancer?) and, in his flamboyant purple vest and bowtie, a singing waiter. He's wonderful as the tap-dancing seagull in the very odd "Positoovity."
But in the end, the show belongs to one performer, my choice for Best in Cast (and one of the best of any cast all year): Janelle Richardson's Ursula. This is one of the finest performances I've seen lately (both in professional shows and community productions). With a blonde wig like Ruth Brown as Motormouth Mabelle, but evil as a Mabel King witch, she exudes wicked pleasure. Joie de mal. Sprouting tentacles (held by black-clad Children of the Damned minions), she is aided by two very talented punk eels in black mohawks and facial piercings, electric entities that slowly slink around the stage (Kate Cordes and Taylor Hendershot, both outstanding). Ursula is frighteningly fun and may even scare the little ones, which is perfect. She slithers, sensually sliding across the floor. She's not just a sea witch; she's a sea snake. And her vocals shake the room, stir the soul. Her "Daddy's Little Angel" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" have never sounded better. I've seen some great Ursula's in the past, but Ms. Richardson tops them all. "Broadway quality!" one person said to me. Or as the stranger next to me put it right after her rousing "Daddy's Little Angel," "That was worth it right there. The price of admission. Wow!"
Rounding out the cast, Roman Ricardo's Pilot does well, and the little girl who played the Seahorse (Rio Ricardo) showed lots of spunk and promise. The ensemble, mostly featuring a myriad of children, is fine. Yes, they are all over the place, and it's a show that's cluttered with so many cast members, too many to mention here individually. But each one of the ensemble member's enthusiasm makes it all work. (I just wish all of the cast members and what parts they played were singled out in the program, but with so many in the show, I guess listing them all with their specific roles would make it about as thick as Infinite Jest.)
Technically, THE LITTLE MERMAID is a marvel. The sets (the work of the mega-talented James Cass) work quite well (love Arial's grotto), zooming on and off the set with the help of stagehands dressed in blue (to blend in with the sea). I love the start with the silhouettes behind a white sheet, and then having it fall so that we can see Prince Eric, et al, on the ship (with some of his sailors swinging on the masts). Baxter is a master-stager: He knows where to put his cast for ultimate effect. Such as in the "If Only" quartet, where an ordinary director would place each of the parts in a boring straight line. Not Mr. Baxter! He layers the foursome-Sebastian downstage left; Eric slanted behind them; Ariel slanted behind him: and King Triton upstage left. It works really well on the eyes. And the wedding scene, where the entire cast watches, is brilliantly realized.
A wondrous live orchestra, not too loud, was very much welcomed here. Conducted by the great G. Frank Meekins, his group of musicians helped galvanize the well-paced show.
Good as this LITTLE MERMAID is, it has some issues that need to be addressed. All the ensemble need to be in character the whole time, no matter what age (yes, it's difficult to keep children focused, but they need to always be in character and respond as part of the scene). There were some minor mic issues, especially at the start of Act 2. And there was a messiness to some of the dancing (choreography was by Anne Tully), some of it more lively than in other scenes, with dancers of varying abilities all over the place. (Some of the uneven dancing will certainly improve as the run continues.)
The ending, where Ursula gets her due, didn't carry the magic that it needed. This should be the climax, lots of strobe lights and thunder sounds, but it just seemed so meh for my tastes, especially when there were so many electric moments beforehand. And Janelle Richardson is so knock-em-dead stellar that her dramatic send-off deserves better. Also, there should be more heat, more of an intimate connection, between Ariel and Prince Eric at the very end. As it stands, they're together waving in their final moments, but it should end with them kissing, their ultimate connection, a life-commitment with true love conquering all, being the last thing that the audience sees.
But the New Tampa Players have upped the ante with this production. They are becoming major players in the area, an area featuring luminary community theaters like Eight O'Clock in Largo and Mad Theatre who performs at the Straz. I hope they keep pushing themselves, utilizing creative artists like Derek Baxter, a visionary who likes to take risks. His LITTLE MERMAID is one BIG endeavor, and he, along with his talented cast and crew, have made it all pay off.
Photo credit: James Cass