Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Little Mermaid is Disney's version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale of a mermaid named Ariel, youngest daughter of King Triton, who longs to get to know the human world and falls in love with a prince she sees while exploring the surface. Ariel's friends Scuttle, Sebastian, and Flounder do their best to keep Ariel out of trouble, but she's seduced by the promises of the dangerous sea witch Ursula. The animated movie version was released in 1989, and the musical debuted on Broadway in 2007.
The book for the stage version of The Little Mermaid is by Doug Wright and follows the film fairly closely, but with a few characters and storylines clarified and several other minor changes. There's romance, comedy and conflict present to keep interest at a sufficient level, though the story does drag and seem a bit padded at times with silly antics that will delight many of the children.
The score is first-rate, and makes up for some of the issues with the book. The music is by Alan Menken, who has supplied the same for shows including Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Sister Act, Newsies, and this season's A Bronx Tale. The lyrics are a combination of work from the late Howard Ashman for the original numbers, and Glenn Slater for the new songs (of which there are many), and both provide some smart word play and are aptly descriptive. Audiences will love hearing well-known gems such as "Part of Your World," "Under the Sea," and "Kiss the Girl," but there are some wonderful new songs as well. "She's in Love" is an exquisite doo-whop number for Ariel's sisters and Flounder, and "If Only" is a beautifully haunting quartet for Ariel, Prince Eric, Sebastian, and King Triton.
This version differs from the script and score presented on Broadway, with modifications to the book by Glenn Casale. Gone are several songs including "Human Stuff," and Ursula's first number "I Want The Good Times Back" has been replaced by "Daddy's Little Angel"a lesser song musically but better in telling the story. Speaking of Glenn Casale, he serves as the director for this tour, and his adaptation is now the licensed version. Mr. Casale takes a number of risks in his blocking, most of which pay off well. To simulate swimming underwater, he uses a combination of flying some of the actors (a la Peter Pan) to show them moving to different depths, along with the actors portraying mermaids and mermen repeating an undulating motion with their bodies and parts of their costumes to imply the swimming action. While this is somewhat distracting at first, it's at least done consistently and becomes the norm, and is a reasonable representation overall.
The transitions are smooth, and the tone and pace are apt for the material. The humor comes across well, with the antics during "Les Poissons" being particularly effective. Mr. Casale wisely employs some cute puppetry reminiscent of The Lion King during "Under the Sea." There are a few times when scenes feel underpopulated, but that's likely a constraint of the touring economics. The choreography by John Macinnis is varied and appropriate to the setting, and features a great tap number for "Positoovity" at the top of act two. Colin R. Freeman leads a wonderful-sounding orchestra consisting of a combination of touring and local musicians.
As Ariel, Diana Huey portrays the undersea princess as a distracted, strong-willed teenager filled with an array of emotions, but also as a sweet, lovelorn young adult with an open heart. Ms. Huey sings the score very well, and (for better or worse) nails some of the Disney princess mannerisms associated with the genre. Matthew Kacergis is an earnest and eager Prince Eric and an impressive vocalist throughout. Steve Blanchard is a commanding King Triton, showing the strength of a king and the tenderness and confusion of the father of a teenage girl. Melvin Abston garners lots of laughs as Sebastian, and shows off a large range and power with his singing.
Jennifer Allen deliciously chews the scenery and skillfully balances between droll and sarcastic humor and menacing wickedness as Ursula, the sea witch. Fine performances are also turned in by Allen Fitzpatrick (Grimsby), Conner Russell (Flounder), Jamie Torcellini (Scuttle), and Dane Stokinger (Chef Louis) in supporting roles. The entire cast does well embodying both the underwater and landlocked inhabitants of the show in all respects
Kenneth Foy's scenic design takes on a variety of different looks (from cartoonish to realistic to surreal), each used effectively. The lighting by Charlie Morrison includes good use of shadows and effects to convey the nautical settings. The costumes by Amy Clark and Mark Koss are a bit hit and miss. The mermaid costumes don't really communicate "mermaid" well, but they do cover the feet and are sufficient when combined with the aforementioned body movement. There are other times that a few costumes feel like odd choices (the maid costumes in the castle), but they overall communicate the characters well enough.
The Little Mermaid is a solid Disney stage adaptation of one of their most beloved animated films. The familiar songs from the movie are combined with some first-rate new tunes to create a superb overall score. The national tour features apt design, good direction, and a fine cast. If the many young girls in attendance on opening night are any indication, the Disney magic to delight which has existed for so many years is evident in this production as well.
The Little Mermaid continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through January 29, 2017. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816.