Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Palo Alto Players has taken the challenge of meeting the audience's movie/DVD-based expectations in opening their 86th season with The Little Mermaid, the 2007 New Broadway show based on the 1989 movie. Not only does this production hold up well against remembered images of the movie, the Players have taken the Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman/Glenn Slater (lyrics), and Doug Wright (book) musical and created a visually mind-blowing, musically excellent, and character-perfect version that surely far exceeds what anyone expected to see upon entering Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre.
Rising out of what is usually the band pit but now is bordered with over-sized coral and hints of blue waves, a young girl with long, red hair and a familiar green, scaly outfit emerges to explore "The World Above," proving immediately that her crystal-pure voice is the one we expect and want Ariel to have. The mermaid's draw to the world of humans above the sea's surface comes to full light as she "swims" in flowing motions around a giant, underwater sea shell, showing off found treasures of "whozits", "whatzits," and "thingamabobs." The little-girl tones of innocence and wonder that she employs in the beginning of "Part of Your World" build in power and reverberation, slowly revealing a voice full of depth, power, and the ability to sustain its sung notes with total confidence and beauty. Time and again in solos, duets, and other cast combinations, Cheyenne Wells glides easily through the scales of singing while also illuminating in full-smile a daring personality that quickly wins total audience approval.
Back on the surface of the ocean is a ship full of big-voiced, harmonious sailors singing "Fathoms Above," introducing us to a prince named Eric who would rather be a seaman than a royal. His first notes sung also show great promise, one that is more than fulfilled when later he sings in clarion, rich-toned words, "Somewhere there's a girl ... singing and her voice is meant for me" ("Her Voice"). The handsome, boyish Corey Miller brings a sense of adventure, playfulness, and genuine heart to his Prince Eric. His expressive eyes betray at once the love he already has for a red-haired girl with no voice he finds on the beach.
That she has no voice is no surprise to *Little Mermaid* aficionados. Ursula, the evil sister of Ariel's royal father (King Tristan, played by the big-voiced Nick Mandracchia), seduces Ariel to sign an underwater contract. In doing so, Ariel trades her beautiful voice for three days in order to be a human with legs instead of a mermaid with tail, with the threat of eternal damnation if Prince Eric does not kiss her before the third sunset.
With a mouth wide as an ocean cave, hair with peaks like underwater mountains, a body rising ten feet high, and eight tentacles that stretch menacingly in all directions, this Ursula is an incredible, live version of the Disney screen villainess. Kristen Hermosillo's throaty, cavernous voice slides, slithers, and stretches up and down as she sings "Daddy's Little Angel" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls." Her voice suddenly shifts and changes its gears to rev out sounds that are reminiscent of vaudeville, Saturday morning cartoons, a cabaret stage, and other song genres. She is often joined by her slithery henchmen, Flotsam (Jepoy Ramos) and Jetsam (Joshua C. Lau), both of whom skate around their watery world singing with tenor voices that blend in delightful harmonies, including their own twosome version of "Sweet Child."
Disney's original movie has a couple of memorable "big" numbers most fans will quickly recall. These have been recreated with full aplomb by Palo Alto Players, augmented in The Little Mermaid stage version with other big-cast numbers that director and choreographer Janie Scott and costume designer Ashley Grambow have insured are eye-popping wonders. Daniel Lloyd Pias is Ariel's loyal, lobster friend, Sebastian, who leads a massive underwater panorama of colorful schools of fish, floating and twirling crustaceans, and graceful jellies in "Under the Sea." His Jamaican dialect springs triumphantly into vocals that both tickle with their humor and impress with their true clarity. He is later joined by twinkling fireflies, a froggy quintet, floating swans, and other creatures as he duets with his sea gull pal Scuttle (Kevin Redrico) in a mesmerizing, romantic "Kiss the Girl."
Scuttle earlier opens act two with one of several numbers not in the original screen version, "Positoovity," a word that falls in this gull's dictionary between "popcycle" and "pre-hysterical." With him in harmony and in kick lines galore are a group of fellow gulls, all with flappy, webbed feet and big, bouncing bills to highlight their feather-hinting bodies. Mr. Redrico too flaunts vocals that win audience approval as he does much more than just squawk his way through his featured songs.
Other stage-filling, color-filled, melody-rich numbers roll with regularity like sea waves across the stage. Another Arial buddy, Flounder (a floppy fish in yellow and blue played by Drew Hope), shoo-bops his way with a groovy voice and leads Ariel's six rainbow-clad sisters (the "Mersisters") in a 1960s revue of dances (Mashed Potato, Frug, The Swim, etc.) in "She's in Love."
Joey McDaniel brings all the guttural sounds and Parisian flair needed for a perfectly hilarious Chef Louis. He prepares a feast at the palace for Prince Eric and Ariel, one that the Chef and his line-up of white-aproned cooks do their best to include Sebastian as the main course ("Les Poissons").
Much of the illusion of scenes underwater, on the beach, and in a castle comes from scenic projections enhanced by Edward Hunter's lighting design. Patrick Klein and Ting Na Wang have partnered to create sets and properties that take us inside giant conch shells, on the deck of a storm-rocked boat, and on the calm surface of a full-moon-lit lake. The entire musical excellence is in the able hands of Musical Director Lauren F. Bevilacqua whose eleven-seated orchestra plays heavenly versions of the underwater favorites everyone has come to hear.
Disney's The Little Mermaid may sound like the perfect outing for young girls and their parents. While that is certainly true, the opening night crowd at Palo Alto Players that included folks of all ages (including an impressive number of guys and gals in their teens and twenties) proves that this Disney classic is set to be a community-wide hit for everyone.
Disney's The Little Mermaid continues through October 2, 2016, as the Palo Alto Players season opener at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.