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Tune Thursday: There's big fun to be had at "The Little Mermaid"

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Tune Thursday: There's big fun to be had at "The Little Mermaid"

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So what can be said about "The Little Mermaid," which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre this past Thursday night?

Sierra Boggess as Ariel and the cast in "The Little Mermaid"
presented by Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

First of all, you have to ignore those incredibly bitter & bitchy reviews that ran in the New York papers last week. Where Ben Brantley of the New York Times seemed to be auditioning for "Project Runaway" when he wrote:

"Loved the shoes. Loathed the show."

And Clive Barnes of the New York Post couldn't resist taking a cheap shot. Telling would-be theater-goers to "Run for the Lifeboat" in the headline of his "Mermaid" review.

Disney Theatrical's latest production hardly deserves this sort of critical bashing. For while this new musical may not be a "Lion King" -sized triumph, there is still a lot to love about this stage version of the Academy Award-winning animated feature.

Like what? Well, for starters, how about those 10 new songs that Alan Menken & Glenn Slater wrote for this show? Which -- in some cases -- use the original underscore of the 1989 film as their inspiration. While still others -- like the wonderful second act quartet, "If Only" -- are wholly new pieces of material.

Sierra Boggess as Ariel, Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula, Derrick Baskin as Jetsam and Tyler Maynard
as Flotsam in "The Little Mermaid" presented by Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

Mind you, I'm not the only one who was enthusiastic about all of the new tunes that have been folded into the score. At intermission on "The Little Mermaid" 's opening night, Pat Carroll (i.e. the Emmy Award-winning actress who originally voiced Ursula) could be heard raving about the Sea Witch's new introductory number, "I Want the Good Times Back." "God, I wish that I had been able to record that song for the movie," Carroll said. "What a great piece of material that is!"

Of course, one of the other reasons that Pat was responding so strongly to the show is that Doug Wright's new book gives the actors so much more to play with. You see, in the stage version of "The Little Mermaid," Ursula isn't just the sea witch. She's also King Triton's sister who -- a year earlier -- had been banished to the deepest, darkest depths in the ocean. All because she used her black magic to try & take control of the seas.

This adds an intriguing new twist to this tale. In that -- after her father forbids the Little Mermaid from ever returning to the surface -- Ariel & Ursula now have something in common. They're both women who feel that they've been wronged by Triton. Which the sea witch then uses to exploit the young girl. "Tell Auntie Ursula all about it ..."

Sean Palmer as Prince Eric and Sierra Boggess as Ariel
in "The Little Mermaid"
presented by Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

Menken, Slater & Wright also makes right something that has bothered animation fans ever since Disney's "The Little Mermaid" was originally released to theaters back in November of 1989. And that is that film's rushed ending. Where Ariel runs into Prince Eric's arms without even taking a moment to say "Good-bye" to her father & sisters. This time around, you get a genuinely tender moment between Daddy and daughter, as Triton (played by Norm Lewis) and Ariel (played by Sierra Boggess) briefly reprise "If Only" before this father can finally let his little girl go.

For that matter, in the stage version of "The Little Mermaid," Prince Eric (played by Sean Palmer) actually asks Triton for his daughter's hand in marriage before he then proposes to Ariel. So this time around, all of the missing pieces of the puzzle are there. Which ultimately makes this a nitpick-free edition of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairytale .

"Under the Sea" with Tituss Burgess as Sebastian in "The Little Mermaid"
presented by Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

Mind you, this is not to say that the stage version of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" is completely flawless. Much as I hate to admit this, but the number that should have been the first act's showstopper -- "Under the Sea" -- is a poorly staged jumble. Ruined -- in part -- by the decision to deploy these four very-slow-moving space arm-like devices right in the middle of this song. One moment, you're watching the dancers as they leap about the stage. The next, your attention is drawn upward to these two huge plastic flower-like things as they painstakingly unfold. By the time you realize that you really should be watching the dancers rather than the unfolding devices, you're completely disengaged from "Under the Sea."

The costumes that Tatiana Noginova designed for "The Little Mermaid" also pose some problems. In that they usually look good as long as the actors that are wearing them are allowed to stand still. But as soon as these performers are required to dance -- as Sherie Rene Scott must do in both "I Want the Good Times Back" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" -- their movements are sometimes hampered by these admittedly-great-looking-but-ultimately-cumbersome outfits.

Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula in "The Little Mermaid"
presented by Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

But these complaints are all forgotten once intermission is over and Act Two (Which is the far stronger of the two acts) gets underway. Here, you get the fun of Scuttle (played by Eddie Korbich) leading a comical chorus line of screeching seagulls through "Positoovity," Ariel discovering the joys of the human world in "Beyond My Wildest Dreams" as well as the big belly laughs associated with John Treacy Egan's outrageous rendition of "Les Poissons."

Then (as I mentioned earlier) there is the sheer beauty of "If Only," this cleverly staged quartet. Where -- on the night before that final sunset -- Ariel, Prince Eric, King Triton and Sebastian (played by Tituss Burgess) each sing about their concerns. King Triton wants to know where his daughter is, Sebastian desperately wants to help the young princess, Eric tries to figure out if Ariel's the one. And the Little Mermaid ... She knows that her hopes & dreams all ride on what happens tomorrow.

That Menken & Slater would dare to musicalize a moment like this, weaving all of these plot threads together in song is a really ballsy move. But the fact that Alan & Glenn were able to turn "If Only" into this sweeping, soaring tune that not only clarifies the action but brings some heart to this part of the show ... That's just breathtaking.

 Sierra Boggess as Ariel in "The Little Mermaid"
presented by Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

There are other delights to be found in Disney's new Broadway version of "The Little Mermaid." Jonathan Freeman's drily comic portrayal of Grimsby. Natasha Katz's lighting design. George Tsypin's set design (Which -- barring those two space arm-deploying thingys -- is actually quite clever).

So don't let New York's bitchy & bitter critics prevent you from experiencing an admittedly-not-perfect but still perfectly enjoyable night of theatre. The next time you're in the city, be sure and swing by the Lunt-Fontanne. For there's big fun to be had at "The Little Mermaid."

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  • A far more respectful, thoughtful, erudite, and insightful examination of this show than was offered by the so-called experts in the New York press. Well done, Jim.

  • Thanks for the great review, I've been waiting to hear about the show! Glad to know it's worth seeing.

  • Any version that doesn't end with the mermaid dead can hardly be called a "nitpick-free edition of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairytale", but I get your point.

  • I'm actually very surprised by all the venom that the critics spewed over this show.  Yes, it definitely is not the perfect show but I'd say it's much closer to a Mary Poppins, maybe even exceeding that than it is a Tarzan.  I don't understand why people are saying this story is difficult to understand, it's not the least bit difficult to follow.  But the songs are great, the lighting is awesome, the costumes are a little hit or miss.  I like what they tried to do with the set, for the most part, it did work.  Yes, those "space arms" do tend to get in a way of Under The Sea, even reminded me of the Astro Orbiters ride.  The ending is very anticlimactic after all the onstage trickery they do to that point, the ending just feels like they gave no thought to it.  But I think it was a fun show, definitely something to catch if you get the chance.

  • Disney Theatricals is running head-on into the New York critics by trying to produce "family-friendly" broadway shows. The critics are just looking for anything to dislike about these productions since they are changing the face of Broadway.

    I lived near NYC in the 80's and at that time, there was nothing on Broadway that you could call take the whole family to, unless the family's youngest kids were in high school (as was the case in my family).

    The Broadway retail district loves these Disney production, however, the critics feel the integrity of Broadway is being compromised.

  • Is that "Broadway integrity" Bob Sagett in "The Drowsy Chaperone" or Clay Aiken in "Spamalot"?

    I guess it's "the eye of the beholder," eh?  ;-)

  • Great review, Jim. Glad to know that TLM is worth seeing. I'll try to catch it before I leave the States later this year.

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