Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
LA MIRADA CA - I have no qualms in admitting that I am a huge Disney nerd. My love of the studio's offerings began as a toddler crying my eyes out when my mother introduced me to the animated film The Rescuers. I also found out from my parents that my very name was inspired by the precocious character they saw in the Disney-produced movie version of Mary Poppins. Even my move to California and its close proximity to the Happiest Place on Earth™ was a huge factor in my eventual choice for a college.
So it's no surprise then that The Little Mermaid—the hit 1989 animated movie musical that helped usher in Disney's late-20th Century movie musical renaissance—still holds a special place in my heart, like it does for many others like myself who grew up with it... knowing every lyric of the movie's many memorable songs and enchanted by the movie's ideal of following your dreams to fruition.
By weirdly-timed happenstance, two separate stage presentations of Disney's "THE LITTLE MERMAID" landed in my inbox for reviewing for the same weekend. The first is the celebrity-packed live concert version at the Hollywood Bowl that had the likes of Sara Bareilles, Darren Criss, Rebel Wilson, Tituss Burgess, and John Stamos singing alongside a 71-piece symphony orchestra while the original movie—directed by John Musker and Ron Clements—played overhead in gigantic HD screens.
The second, which opened the following evening, is a fully-staged new production of the film's Broadway stage adaptation, produced locally by McCoy Rigby Entertainment with new staging and direction by Glenn Casale. The production is currently performing at McCoy Rigby's home theater at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in the city of La Mirada through June 26.
A gorgeously-mesmerizing visual treat, this family-friendly La Mirada production—which also toured at other regional theaters in the US—is a lovely new heavily-reimagined hybrid of the original Disney film (which featured music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman) that we all cherish, and the 2008 Broadway adaptation (with new additional lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Doug Wright) that had its heart in the right place.
Just as the original Disney movie treatment was a reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale, so too was its short-lived Broadway incarnation—in which it tried to make itself directly reminiscent of the animated masterpiece while at the same time differentiate itself enough to be its own stand-alone entity. Besides the addition of new songs by Menken and Slater, Wright introduced new backstories and story details to expand the original shorter movie into a two-hours-plus stage musical.
That same need for re-invention is definitely apparent in Casale's newer, much improved version, in which he cuts song and scene lengths here and there and tightening up others, while increasing the story's relatable aspects without sacrificing the Disney-esque qualities that so many of the film's fans have loved about it in the first place. On the whole, many of the changes enacted by Casale generally made this iteration an admirable one.
The resulting high-quality show—magically charming in just about all the right places—will dazzle kids and bring smiles to many adults. Don't be fooled by its local venue leanings... this reboot is as eye-popping as you'd see in a big tour or in a Broadway theatre.
Here, many characters feel slightly altered enough to feel like fresh new versions of the ones we all know so well.
The musical still centers around young, spunky, human-artifact-collecting mermaid Ariel (the lovely Alison Woods), the youngest daughter of King Triton (Fred Inkley), the ruler of the watery depths. Though touted as the kingdom's most talented singer, Ariel still feels like a, well, a fish out of water, feeling unsure of herself and thinking she's destined for something beyond what's beneath the ocean surface.
Enter handsome Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) himself a King-to-be who, well, doesn't really wish to be. Instead, he'd rather set sail for high adventure in the open seas, much to the impatience of his trusted caretaker/confidant Grimsby (Time Winters). So, uh, yeah he and Ariel are pretty much meant to be.
Alas, this doesn't sit too well with Ariel's best bud, surfer-accented Flounder (Adam Garst) who—in a twist from the previous Disney-fied story—has a totes adorkable secret crush on her (Flounder has been aged up a bit to be a "teen" just like Ariel to, you know, lessen the ick factor).
As expected, Ariel's "troubles" put a strain on her already rocky relationship with her Dad, who is understandably over-protective and super-strict, as most single fathers would be in a similar situation. He hates his daughter's inexplicable fascination with humans, a species he absolutely despises and whom he blames for all the ailments and problems in the world today (hmmm... sounds eerily familiar). He even alludes to the possibility that humans are to blame for Ariel's mom's mysterious demise.
Their conflict is, of course, an advantageous way in for Ursula (the incredible Tracy Lore), the Sea Witch who all this time has been plotting revenge against her...surprise!... brother, Triton. In another new story detail that deviates from the movie, Ursula and Triton are actually the offspring of Poseidon (say what?!).
An even darker detail introduced in this new version is that evil little Ursula, we later learn, is a murderous creature who slaughtered her and Triton's other siblings to take the reign for herself. Triton later overthrows her, becomes King himself and banishes his sis out of the kingdom... which explains her thirst for revenge and her need to restore herself as ruler of all. All she has to do, apparently, is restore power to her shell trinket which she can achieve by stealing Ariel's voice. Got all that?
Wowza, that's a lot of backstory... one of the few things this stage version (and, frankly, even the Broadway one) didn't really need.
Soon, angered by Triton's destruction of her secret collection of human trinkets, Ariel defies her father once again to explore her fascination with all things human... so he agrees to Ursula's deal to be turned into a human for three days. Oh, yay, Ariel gets her human legs and gets to know Eric up on the surface!
One problem: because Ariel had to give Ursula her awesome voice as the price for the deal, she now can't speak or sing. That's not good, considering Eric is currently searching for the mystery woman that saved his life. Days before, during a freak storm out at sea, Eric is thrown overboard and almost drowns. He wakes up on the beach to the sounds of a gorgeous female voice that has since enraptured his every waking moment. Yes, just like in the movie, Ariel was his rescuer.
To make matter worse: mute Ariel's got three days to get Eric to give her a true love's smooch to remain a human forever or else her soul will belong to the sea witch. Thus begins her quest to get Eric to fall for her even without her voice, helped along by Flounder, an eccentric know-nothing seagull named Scuttle (Jaime Torcellini), and Triton's court composer Sebastian the crab (the terrific Melvin Abston), whom Triton has personally requested to look after Ariel.
Despite its unnecessarily over-padded backstory, this Casale-revised stage version does take many detours (some big, some minor) away from both the original movie and the Broadway production. New in this iteration is the song "Daddy's Little Angel" a new song meant to replace "I Want The Good Times Back." The song "Human Stuff" is also removed in favor of just dialog that slowed things down a bit during surface scenes.
But perhaps this revised show's most notable, most welcome aspect is the way characters maneuver themselves in the show. During many instances where characters are swimming "Under the Sea," they are often actually flying on high-wires above the stage allowing them to mimic the swimming-through-water movements of mermaids and fish from the animated film. It's an astonishing illusion to take in, all choreographed by Paul Rubin—and it sells the idea brilliantly. When not hoisted up on harnesses, though, fishy characters merely gyrate their bodies to illustrate their existence in still waters. It's slightly distracting at first, but you get used to it as the show progresses.
Surrounding them all are the underwater (and above water) scenic designs that combine sets and props with projections by Kenneth Foy that are absolutely beautiful, swathed in Charlie Morrison's contextual lighting design, and colorful costumes by Amy Clark and Mark Koss—that are more abstract than, well, fishy. Part of me still hoped to see actual "mermaid" fins at the tail end of their costumes to complete the look that so many of us have ingrained in our brains, but this somewhat implied representation still conveys the idea, I suppose, thanks to the actors' portrayals, which are additionally helped tremendously via Leah J. Loukas' hair, make-up, and wig work.
Sound-wise, the music and score sound incredible under the baton of musical director Colin R. Freeman and the 15-member orchestra assembled at La Mirada. Many of the movie's signature numbers such as "Under The Sea," "Poor Unfortunate Souls," and, yes, the hilariously over-the-top "Les Poissons" sung by Chef Louis (portrayed by marvelous scene-stealer Jeff Skowron, who really at this point should just be automatically inserted into every So Cal production) are revisited here as dazzling showstoppers thanks to the cast and choreographer John MacInnis.
Woods nails the ubiquitous "Part of Your World" so beautifully that it will surely have children in the audience spellbound. Abston's work in "Under the Sea" (plus his many droll one liners) is musical theater heaven. "Kiss the Girl," however, is slightly less exciting here, as if it needed the ensemble to be more participatory in the romantic scene to give it some extra oomph to match its place in the film.
Of the newer, written-for-the-stage show songs, the best is the quartet of "If Only" which features Triton, Ariel, Eric and Sebastian harmonizing with great intensity and emotion; as well as the rousing and endearing "She's In Love," a doo-wop charmer that's great fun from start to finish. Here, Garst (with surfer/skater moves and a wicked mohawk atop his head) shows Flounder's newly revised "older" character arc quite well... an arc I wish was explored even more throughout the musical. Lore, always amazing in these showy divalicious roles, makes an exceptionally wicked Ursula, flanked by the slithery Flotsam (Scott T. Leiendecker) and Jetsam (Jeffrey Christopher Todd).
Overall—and perhaps most important of all—Casale's reboot feels like you're experiencing exactly what you'd expect with a Disney version of the fairy tale. Yes, believe it or not, this production looks and sounds more Disney than if Disney Theatricals itself did it.
That's a pretty great feat on its own... and a pretty great reason to check out La Mirada's winning production.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID by Bruce Bennett courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.
The McCoy Rigby Entertainment / Mt. Beacon Productions presentation of Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Sunday, June 26, 2016. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.