The Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight co-production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, now playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center, is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved story, “The Little Mermaid,” which was published in 1837. That fairytale/morality tale is as dark and damp as a Copenhagen winter: eternal damnation, unyielding pain, betrayal, blood, and a magical dagger all threaten to annihilate a nameless little fish girl. And then she dies.
By stark contrast, the 1989 mega-smash film by Walt Disney Animation Studios is a joyous celebration of calypso music, the power of love, and French cuisine.
Disney Theatrical Productions, founded in 1993, is known for its uber-popular Broadway (and internationally touring) productions of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mary Poppins. In naming The Little Mermaid as Disney’s next jump from the silver screen to the Great White Way, company president Thomas Schumacher had to figure out how to stage a show set primarily under water. He must have hoped to recapture The Lion King’s magical ability to make the unstageable stageable.
The Lion King worked so perfectly because director Julie Taymor knew that she had to leave the movie behind and carry forth its spirit. The show’s highly presentational and decidedly un-cinematic original Broadway production featured puppeteering, mask work, and a highly abstract presentation. It demanded that its audience suspend any and all disbelief in order to accept the premise of talking animals.
The Little Mermaid at DPAC struggles, because it is trying so desperately to look, feel, and sound like its animated counterpart. The production could never in its wildest dreams afford to present the complex underwater universe of the film. Nor should it try. But it does.
Let me be extraordinarily clear: the show is a lot of fun. It’s silly, action-packed, and special effects-driven. It’s money well spent, if you want Simple Disney Family Entertainment.
Kenneth Foy’s scenic designs are just cartoonish enough to suggest that we are in a Disney theme park or, perhaps, a Disney cruise, without being so cartoonish as to become an actual concept (as in the hyper-stylized SpongeBob the Musical, which achieves greatness by never holding back).
Foy’s interpretation of Ariel’s grotto is reminiscent of the plastic toys that you’d find in a goldfish bowl, whereas Prince Eric’s two-dimensional ship looks as though it might tip over, revealing a trio of stagehands pushing it along.
The most distressing — and the most unnecessary — visual elements are the plastic, translucent panels of “bubbles” that swoop in whenever we are meant to be on the shore. They look like a pool of bacteria under a microscope.
But the real issue? We don’t need the bubbles in the first place. We know where we are. The awkward bobbing/pelvic-thrust movement that the mermaids do to indicate “floating under water” isn’t necessary. We know where we are. We are under water. Now move on.
The flying sequences, skillfully choreographed by Paul Rubin , are spectacular. King Triton (an intimidating Steve Blanchard) spends much of the show “swimming” high above the rest of the cast — a powerful position indeed.
Ariel “swims” from time to time, and it is always spectacular. The vaudevillian seagull Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) flies about for many of his scenes — the rigging system ascending and descending, depending on the speed of his flapping wings. Hard-to-stage moments — such as Ariel’s transformation from mermaid to human — are made not only possible, but believable through Rubin’s work.
Stretching an 85-minute film into a 2.5 hour show (I don’t know why big musicals are always 2.5 hours long — it’s just what we do) requires some filler. The seven songs from the film are all there — composed by Alan Menken, with lyrics by the late Howard Ashman — plus 18 more songs added by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater.
A few of the new songs are quite nice: “She’s in Love,” performed by the Mer-Sisters and Flounder (an adorable Marco Ramos), is great fun and feels like a 1960s girl group number. Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) performs “Her Voice,” a darker, masculine counterpoint to Ariel’s “Part of Your World.” The “If Only (Quartet)” does what only a song can do: tell four stories at once.
The lengthy love duet “One Step Closer” is forgettable, as is the show’s opening number, a ballad by Ariel (an endearing, vocally powerful Diana Huey). Why we are starting this show with a solo ballad I cannot determine; it undermines the frolicking spirit set by conductor Colin R. Freeman’s capable musicians, coordinated locally by reed player Wayne Leechford.
Sebastian the crab (Melvin Abston, with perfect comedic timing) helps the show pick up speed with a flashy Vegas-inspired rendition of “Under the Sea,” complete with showgirls in gorgeous costumes by Amy Clark & Mark Koss, stunning lighting by Charlie Morrison, and rousing choreography by John MacInnis. Special credit must be given to the pit’s horn section (Bobby Hinson and Kathy Wood), as well as percussionists Anthony DeAugustine and Julie Thompson for giving everyone’s favorite song such pep.
One song, Scuttle’s cheesy “Positoovity” must be an attempt at a new “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” because it serves no other purpose. Jamie Torcellini works his tail off, as he does throughout the show; but due to shoddy writing, the character lacks any of the film character’s charm.
The rest of the new score is simply … there.
Meredith Inglesby, who is married to Steve Blanchard (King Triton), steals the show as Ursula
Meredith Inglesby, who is married to Steve Blanchard (King Triton), steals the show as Ursula the seawitch. She turns the forgettable “Daddy’s Little Angel” into something sassy and twisted. Her rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” positively brings the house down, and she manipulates her octopus gown (the show’s best costume) to great effect. Her monumental performance is topped-off by Leah J. Loukas’ mile-high wig design.
The script, with a substantial (but very necessary) departure from the film’s ending, was penned by Doug Wright, book writer of Grey Gardens and War Paint. He packs in enough aquatic puns into this script to make a sailor lose his lunch, but it somehow works.
Wright takes it so far that it becomes a concept. However, the show goes from climax to resolution in about five minutes; and the last few pages of writing are unacceptably clumsy. There was little that director Glenn Casale could do to clean up the spill.
Sound designer Ed Chapman mixes his microphones well, but we struggle to hear the pit. Detailed soundscapes by Gareth Owen and Randy Hansen add great ambiance to Ursula’s cave, the show’s finest technical creation. With a few Tim Burton-esque cave backdrops and streams of seaweed, it achieves a simplicity that the other scenes deserve. Add stunning purple-and-green lighting, complete with creeping vine projections, and you’ve got a serious villain’s lair on your hands.
With a Barbie Dreamhouse set, some big writing and composing fails, and an overall sense of artificiality, the whole show feels like it belongs on a Disney cruise, not on the Broadway stage. The Little Mermaid just feels too safe and too easy. But if you’re looking for a fun, pretty, Disneyfied presentation, I highly recommend it. If you’re looking for something creative or new, you won’t find it here. These seas are shallow.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 19th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Jeffrey Kare: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-THE-LITTLE-MERMAID-National-Tour-at-Durham-Performing-Arts-Center-20171019; Oct. 19th Raleigh, NC Talkin’ Broadway: Raleigh/Durham review by Garrett Southerland: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/rd/rd30.html; Oct. 18th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Brian Howe [who awarded the show 3 of 5 stars “if you aren’t nostalgic for the movie” and 5 of 5 stars “if you are”]: https://www.indyweek.com/arts/archives/2017/10/18/theater-review-for-an-early-nineties-kid-the-little-mermaid-musical-is-virtually-review-proof and Oct. 11th mini-preview by Brian Howe: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/disneys-the-little-mermaid/Event?oid=8553712; Oct. 18th Burlington, NC Times-News review by Rachel Teseneer for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/the-little-mermaid-is-a-captivating-performance/; and Oct. 18th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com review by Laura Worthington for “What’s on Tap”: http://www.wral.com/-the-little-mermaid-dazzles-at-dpac/17026527/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 17th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/10/revamped-version-of-disneys-the-little-mermaid-will-make-a-big-splash-on-oct-17-22-at-dpac/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19, 8 p.m. Oct. 20, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 21, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $30 and up, plus taxes and fees. Click here for DPAC Special Offers.
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), email@example.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1127692.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
THE SHOW: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/the-little-mermaid and https://www.facebook.com/events/1709464075766089/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=4YFKcVxM7ZY.
DPAC NEWS RELEASES: https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/matinee-added-for-disneys-the-little-mermaid and https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/disneys-the-little-mermaid-on-sale-july-29.
DPAC‘S 2017-18 “TEN GREAT YEARS” SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2017-18 and https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/announcing-suntrust-broadway-at-dpac-2017-2018-season.
THE TOUR: http://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/disneys-the-little-mermaid.
TOUR NEW RELEASE: http://kc.perform.ink/2017/05/starlights-co-produced-little-mermaid-kicks-off-67th-season/.
TOUR STUDY GUIDE: http://www.pittsburghclo.org/flipbooks/THELITTLEMERMAID_ShowContentGuide2017/index.html.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21st, performance.
The Little Mermaid (Den lille Havfrue) (1837 Danish fairy tale): http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheLittleMermaid_e.html (Jean Hersholt’s English translation from the Hans Christian Andersen Center at the University of Southern Denmark) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid (Wikipedia).
Hans Christian Andersen (Danish author, 1805-75): http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/liv/index_e.html (Hans Christian Andersen Center at the University of Southern Denmark) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Christian_Andersen (Wikipedia).
Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989 animated film): http://movies.disney.com/the-little-mermaid (official website), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097757/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid_%281989_film%29 (Wikipedia).
Ron Clements (director and screenwriter): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0166256/ (Internet Movie Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Clements (Wikipedia).
John Musker (director and screenwriter): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0615780/ (Internet Broadway Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Musker (Wikipedia).
Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2008 Broadway musical): http://www.mtishows.com/disneys-the-little-mermaid (Music Theatre International page for Revised Regional Version), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-little-mermaid-456221 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid_musical (Wikipedia).
Alan Menken (music): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/alan-menken-12135 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0579678/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Menken (Wikipedia).
Glenn Slater (lyrics): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/glenn-slater-80644 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Slater (Wikipedia).
Howard Ashman (lyrics): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/howard-ashman-6356 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0039141/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Ashman (Wikipedia).
Doug Wright (book): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/doug-wright-113564 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doug_Wright (Wikipedia).
Pittsburgh CLO (tour producer): http://www.pittsburghclo.org/, https://www.facebook.com/PghCLO, https://twitter.com/pittsburghclo, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh_Civic_Light_Opera, and https://www.youtube.com/user/PittsburghCLO.
Kansas City Starlight (tour producer): http://www.kcstarlight.com/, http://www.facebook.com/kcstarlight, http://twitter.com/KCStarlight, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starlight_Theatre_(Kansas_City,_Missouri).
Glenn Casale (tour director): http://www.glenncasale.com/index.html (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/glenn-casale-14395 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0142811/ (Internet Movie Database).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.