Associate Critic for The Column
DALLAS, TX -
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is the story of Ariel, a young mermaid princess who feels out of place in the ocean and misunderstood by her powerful father Triton, the Sea King. When she rescues sea-loving Prince Eric after he is thrown from his ship in a storm, Ariel falls in love and determines that she will one day be “part of his world.” Learning of her hopeless situation, the power-hungry Sea Witch, Ursula, tricks Ariel into trading her voice—and possibly her soul—for a pair of legs and a chance at love.
The book for Disney’s Broadway show was adapted by Doug Wright from the 1989 animated movie, written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, and based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale of the same name. The stage musical includes all seven original songs from the film version composed by Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, as well as ten new songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. Originally produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, the show opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on January 10, 2008 under the direction of Francesca Zambello. It was met with mixed reviews and did not perform well at the box office, compared to its popular predecessors, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. It closed after one year—a mere 685 performances—to make way for The Addams Family.
Now reimagined and revamped, this production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, brought to town by Dallas Summer Musicals, is a real treat for spring audiences at the Music Hall at Fair Park. The musical mélange features a score that crosses cultural borders and costumes that span centuries. It is directed by Glenn Casale, whose ongoing revisions to the original have been the definitive basis for all major licensed productions of the show worldwide since 2012. Some of these changes include the use of aerial effects, plot revisions, a reordering of scenes, and replacing Ursula’s song “I Want the Good Times Back” with the hilariously disturbing “Daddy’s Little Angel.” The changes have made the show so much better than it was, though a bit more work could be done to fill in the one or two remaining plot holes. Regardless, Casale’s direction and innovation, and his recruitment of Broadway-caliber talent, has turned Disney’s The Little Mermaid into a must-see theatrical phenomenon that, despite a few imperfections, is sure to find its way back to Broadway before long.
The performance I attended was outstanding. Passing through the lobby as I entered the Music Hall, I journeyed through the ocean of theatre-goers, families, lots of little girls in dresses and mermaid costumes. Shiny aqua-colored jellyfish were hanging from the ceiling everywhere. Within the hall, the audience waited for the performance to begin, chatting with their friends and families, with the gentle sound of rushing water accompanying them in the background. Later, the water effects were joined by the sounds of twinkling chimes. I suppose the chimes were meant to fill the room with magic and wonder, but they grew old quickly. Nevertheless, I couldn’t keep the flutters of anticipation from building up inside of me.
Finally, the house lights dimmed and the overture began. The orchestra, conducted by music director Colin R. Freeman, performed with excellence for most of the show. The overture was underwhelming because the arrangement was ill suited for an ensemble of only fourteen musicians; the performers played the right notes, but they lacked precision as an ensemble. The softer pieces, like “If Only,” “Her Voice” and “Sweet Child” were played to perfection.
Sound and soundscapes were designed by Julie Ferrin and Gareth Owen, respectively. Tech artists aim to add value to the production without taking the audience’s attention from the characters and plot. In this, the sound designers were successful! The only effect that stood out was the deep thundering that occurred whenever King Triton raised his voice in anger. Otherwise, I forgot the effects were there (so they must have been great, or their absence would surely have been noticed). I’m sure they added realism, drama and humor to the show. As most performers and tech artists will agree, any time you can get through an entire show without technical difficulties, and with the tech artist remaining all-but-invisible, that’s a good thing; and there were no major issues here. With that said, I have to mention, the default mic volumes were set so loud to begin with that I had to brace myself before every crescendo. Decibels matter, Sound Guys! (Yellow=good, red=bad.) Likewise, the mic volumes should have been adjusted for vocal ensembles. There is no reason to have five or more microphones turned all the way up when the performers are singing simultaneously.
The lighting design by Charlie Morrison was breathtaking. All of the special effects, costumes, scenery, soundscapes, hair & wigs, makeup, orchestrations, flying sequences, choreography—even the acting—were brilliantly enhanced by Morrison’s spectacular and creative lighting cues, projections and sequences. From the blues and greens of the ocean depths to the orange and pink sunsets at its surface, and back down, deep into the dark purple and lime-green black lights of Ursula’s lair, there was not a moment that the light design was anything but stunning. I loved the use of gobos on Ursula at center stage in her show-stopper, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The yellow gobos shone upon her costume and gave the sinister impression that her tentacles were stretching and flowing in all directions. The choices of reflective fabrics and materials used on stage were inspired.
Instead of using stationary painted waves (like many set designers use when creating water), Kenneth Foy’s scenery design uses translucent set pieces of blue and green bubbles to create the appearance of water onstage. Foy’s water beautifully reflects both the warm oranges and pinks of the afternoon sun and the moonlit night flooded in blue light. The placement and size of the bubbles gives the illusion of motion at the water’s surface, and they serve the practical purpose of concealing the characters’ tails (and legs) beneath the water—when they are at the surface, that is. When characters are above the surface or on the beach, you can see the painted façade of Eric’s storybook castle in the distance, exactly as it looked in the movie. That was a nice touch. Most of the action takes place either on the ocean floor or on land, though. The sets were not as elaborate as they could have been. They consisted mostly of relatively small, easily movable pieces. But, I expect it would have been difficult to transport a big, bulky set. At any rate, there is already plenty enough eye candy on stage to fill anyone with wonder.
The entire show was a delight to the senses. The magnificent retro-inspired costumes by Amy Clark & Mark Koss and out-of-this-world hair and wig designs by Leah J. Loukas made every character simply burst with life, color and personality. Most impressive were Ariel’s gorgeous mermaid dress, Flounder’s fantastic blue-and-yellow getup with matching Mohawk and makeup (I love the blue lipstick), Flotsam and Jetsam’s glittering, glowing, scaly-looking eel costumes and electrified hair, Sebastian’s formal red 18th century wig, suit and elegant claws, Scuttle’s and seagull friends’ full-body bird costumes, complete with multi-colored vests and downy cravats, and—of course—Ursula’s massive dress of tentacles and messy white up-do. Some of the costume choices were peculiar, but they were still fun to watch. In “Under the Sea”, the dancers are wearing headdresses of feathers and skin-tight, colorful leotards made of thin, silky fabric. They looked more like a Cirque du Soleil cast or a Brazilian carnival than marine life. (You don’t expect to see feathers in the ocean.) Other oddities were the extremely poufy Renaissance-style pants worn by Chef Louis, the oversized floppy burgundy hats of the other chefs, and the lightweight bouncy underskirts, that looked like giant fur balls, worn by the castle’s female servants. Honestly, they looked ridiculous, but they added another level of comedic value to the show.
There is no way the ocean setting would have worked without Paul Rubin’s spellbinding flying sequence choreography. It added multiple layers of depth and dimension to the show, both literally and figuratively. He obviously took great care in devising movements that would appear as realistic as possible, and he achieved his goal. The characters looked lifelike as their tails powered them through the “water,” and the movement of the wires were perfectly timed with the actors’ choreography. Often, the actors swam between layers of what looked blue tulle, with light effects helping to create the illusion that the audience was viewing the scene through water. This was especially effective in the scene where Prince Eric falls into the ocean. The way his body floated down was incredibly realistic.
When characters were not on wires, some suspension of disbelief was required from the audience. The eels were on Heelys, and Flounder was sometimes on a RipStik, but the rest of the cast mostly walked, and danced, on the ocean floor. Their feet were disguised as well as they could be, and they undulated constantly to give the effect that they were treading water (even when they were beneath the surface). Only twice did the undulations distract me, and that was when they were either too minimal (Flounder) or too exaggerated (one of the mersisters).
The show was choreographed by John MacInnis, who entertained with dances corresponding to the smorgasbord of musical genres represented in the show—most notably the show-stopping dance to Calypso-inspired “Under the Sea,” which has been infused with some Afro-Cuban percussion and Latin jazz that was not in the original arrangement. The choreography for Ursula’s sidekicks, Flotsam and Jetsam, was also extensive. The two move on Heelys, gliding across the stage and intertwining as they move. MacInnis effectively managed to make them look like they move with one mind, much like they do in the animated movie. Two other particularly fun choreographed numbers were Scuttle and seagull friends’ tap number, “Positoovity” and the over-the-top slapstick fiasco, “Les Poissons (Reprise).”
Julia Flores is a genius. Her casting could not have been better. If I ever get the chance to direct, I will be calling her to be my casting director. The characters not only have the appearances and personalities right for their roles, but they have voices to match. In none of the recorded versions of The Little Mermaid have I seen or heard a cast that can compare to this one.
As the title character, Ariel (the little mermaid), Alison Woods is charming and witty. She has none of the saccharine affectations that drip from the fake smiles of most Disney princesses (including those who usually play Ariel). Rather, she has the same fun-loving manner and youthful spirit as her cartoon counterpart. She even manages to stay in character while swimming through the air on a harness and singing. Her youthful soprano voice resonates with beauty and sincerity, much like Jodi Benson’s did in the animated movie. An added bonus, Woods reveals a penchant for physical comedy that is evident when she tries to walk on her new legs, combs her hair with a fork, and attempts to win Prince Eric’s attention by batting her eyes and puckering her lips excessively. She got a lot of laughs for that.
Ariel’s mersisters, played by Kim Arnett, Kristine Bennett, Marjorie Failoni, Melissa Glasgow, Devon Hadsell, Amanda Minano and Tro Shaw, each have their own unique voice and personality, but they function as a group throughout the show. They are like a cheerleading squad full of beautiful girls who are each striving to be the most popular. In this case, they are competing with Ariel for their father’s attention.
King Triton, played by Fred Inkley, is an impressive figure. He stands at least several inches above every other cast member, with a strong build and kingly features, complemented by costume and hair designs that are the very definition of perfection. Inkley manages to find the right balance between majesty and tenderness to be both believable as Sea King and relatable as a father. His stirring, heartfelt lament, “If Only” was so sad and lovely it brought tears to my eyes.
Melvon Abston plays the royal court composer, Sebastian the crab. In his performance, Abston brings the movie Sebastian to life. It is remarkable how crablike he manages to look, just by holding his elbows up and reaching his claws out daintily, scurrying sideways to and fro across the stage. Abston is one of the only performers I’ve seen who could make a cartoon crab come alive so naturally, as an actual character, rather than a mere caricature. And, his vocal prowess was more than sufficient to do justice to the classic movie favorites, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” He has a nice baritone voice, and a huge vocal range, but his powerful falsetto is simply amazing. His performances far surpassed the originals, which were already awesome.
Adam Garst’s Flounder is Ariel’s best friend. He mostly follows Ariel around, trying to hide the fact that he has romantic feelings for her. He has a fair share of comedic lines and physical comedy, always delivered with impeccable timing in a very funny high-pitched nasal tone.
Tracy Lore plays Ursula, the Sea Witch. With her deep, breathy speaking voice, a strong mezzo belt and biting sarcasm that practically drips through her tentacles, she is the ideal Disney villain. Lore made the role her own by laughing self-indulgently at her own jokes, and her comedic timing drew a lot of laughs from the audience.
Ursula is nearly always accompanied by two henchmen, her electric eels played by Scott T. Leiendecker and Jeffrey Christopher Todd. Leiendecker and Todd performed brilliantly together. They moved in harmony with each other as they “swam” around the stage in Heelys. When they weren’t swimming around, they were hiding in Ursula’s tentacles, manipulating them so that they looked mobile. Performing their complex choreography with ease and fluidity, they created quite an impression in their glowing green costumes and spiked hair. Their performance of the haunting duet, “Sweet Child” was riveting. Todd’s rich tenor vocals wound seamlessly through Leiendecker’s electrifying countertenor as their voices handed the melody back and forth, then began gliding off smoothly into eerie harmonies.
Jamie Torcellini is Scuttle, the optimistic Brooklyn seagull with the spurious vocabulary who, unfortunately, teaches Ariel everything he knows. Torcellini’s comical characterization, complete with flying, tap dancing and a birdbrained slaughter of the English language, make his Scuttle one of the standout comic performances among the cast. Michael McGurk, Dennis O’Bannion, and Robbie Rory join in as Scuttle’s seagull buddies in the jazzy song-and-dance number “Positoovity.”
The role of Prince Eric is expertly performed by Eric Kunze, who even looks like the charming Disney prince, with his costume and hairstyling. His ethereal voice resonates so sweetly, it’s no wonder Ariel falls for him! Kunze first captures the prince’s vitality as he expounds on the glories of a life at sea, chasing the voice on the wind. Then, he brings a gentle warmth to his scenes with Ariel, as he teaches her how to communicate through dance.
Eric’s elderly adviser, Grimsby, is played by Time Winters. He fully embodies the character, complete with fatherly affection and distressed anxiety at Eric’s refusal to choose a wife and accept responsibility for the kingdom.
Jeff Skowron plays the pilot of Eric’s ship in Act I, but he steals the show in Act II as Chef Louis in “Les Poissons.” His physical comedy, facial expressions, exaggerated movement, and comedic timing had the audience in stitches throughout the entire song.
The mermaids and gulls double as ensemble members. Joining them are Jeff Skowron (Chef Louis/Pilot), Ashley Anderson, Marco Ramos, Aaron Ronelle, James Shackelford, and Brian Steven Shaw. The women serve as maids to Ariel in “Beyond my Wildest Dreams” and the men serve as chefs (who unwisely attempt to serve boiled crab for dinner) in “Les Poissons (Reprise).” The ensemble brings the stage to life in high-energy songs like the manly sea shanty “Fathom’s Below,” the retro-flavored pop tune “She’s in Love,” and the original Little Mermaid favorite, “Under the Sea.”
For a heartwarming musical about a rebellious teenage girl who falls in love with a handsome prince, this show is surprisingly male-friendly. It’s one I would recommend for the whole family. I can guarantee, if you haven’t seen Disney’s The Little Mermaid, then you have never seen anything like it. It is a sensory feast of colors, textures, and dimensions that will have you laughing and crying, and send you home singing.
DISNEY’S THE LITTLE MERMAID (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals at The Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210
Runs through March 27, 2016
Evening performances are Wednesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through March 27, and matinees are at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 24 and on Saturdays and Sundays through March 26. Ticket prices range from $21-$111 and can be purchased at the DSM Box Office, Online at www.dallassummermusicals.org, ETIX at 1.800.514.ETIX (3849) or at the Music Hall Box Office 1.5 hours before a scheduled performance. Purchasing tickets from any other seller runs a high risk of receiving fraudulent tickets.