Disney's 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid was a critical and commercial success, and almost two decades later was made into a Broadway musical, beginning previews in November, 2007, after a tryout in Denver. It closed on August 30, 2009, and two years were spent reworking it, to ready it for a national tour.
The Broadway production had no "aerial" flights on wires to simulate underwater swimming, but a way to achieve that has been found, and is incorporated in the touring production, to good effect.
Children will be delighted, of course, but this production is infused with such intelligence and charm that it has enormous appeal to adults. There is a real plot, complex in many ways but easy to understand and follow. The characters are multi-dimensional, not cardboard representations. The good King Triton (Steve Blanchard), ruler of a kingdom under the sea, has lapses in temper and temperament, and the villainess Ursula (Liz McCartney), his deposed sister, has such a zest for evil that she becomes captivating.
Ariel (Jessica Grove) is a princess and the youngest daughter of Triton, but she is headstrong and rebellious, and fascinated by the forbidden mystery of the world above the sea. All three of these principals are excellent in their roles. Grove captures Ariel's yearning for adventure, and sings beautifully, with clarity of tone and the power of a belter. Blanchard projects the dignity and wisdom of a head-of-state, even as his family authority is challenged by his daughter.
McCartney dominates every scene she is in, because of the power of her personality, and magnificent stage presence, and also because her costume is brilliantly designed, octopus-like, with numerous tentacles. She appears with two henchmen, Flotsam (Scott Leiendecker) and Jetsam (Ben Roseberry), who manipulate her tentacles to wonderful effect, move with grace and style, and are so good that I looked forward to their every re-appearance.
Eric Kunze plays Prince Eric, and provides the requisite youthful good looks. His role in Act One is minor, but he nails his solo song "Her Voice", and makes us believe in his love for Ariel, who has saved him from drowning after being tossed overboard in a storm.
The tall Dale Hensley plays Grimsby, court adviser to Prince Eric, and captures both his sense of duty and his protective fondness for Eric. Alan Mingo, Jr., plays Sebastian, underwater court composer and musical teacher for Ariel, and her watchful warden on her adventures. He is also tall, with a vivid over-the-top personality that is just right for the role, and he adds enormously to the fun. He leads an underwater ensemble in the song "Under the Sea" that is exhilarating, and is the piece de resistance of Act One.
Matt Allen plays Scuttle, a friend of Ariel, and opens Act Two leading an ensemble in a show-stopping song "Positoovity" including a tap sequence, as Ariel, after a pact with Ursula, is given legs and learns to walk. There is an hilarious farcical scene, brilliantly staged, in Act Two as Louis, the court chef (the excellent Bryan Ray Norris) prepares a seafood dinner, with Sebastian as the intended main course.
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Deadlines play an important part to the plot, as Eric must marry by a certain date, and Ariel has a three-day pact with Ursula, but, rest assured, true love will find a way.
The production is enormous fun, and as directed by Glenn Casale has a unity of tone that is enchanting. The underwater movements are suggested by use of "heelies", shoes with wheels, and by floating through the air (that is, the sea) on wires, and these effects work wonderfully, especially for Blanchard, who has mastered the knack to a fare-thee-well. The costumes by Amy Clark and Mark Moss are colorful and witty, and in the case of Ursula, complex and outstanding.
The music is by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glen Staler, and book by Doug Wright. The choreography by John MacInnis is breathtakingly good, the most interesting I've seen in a long time. It anchors the show, cements it together and invisibly contributes so much joy and exuberance that it lifts the show into the stratosphere of art. The verdict:
This is a production for the ages - all the ages. It has a sumptuous design, thrilling special effects, a sterling cast, wit and buoyance, a fascinating plot, music to savor and choreography to delight. It is a must-see triumph. Disney's The Little Mermaid continues through June 29, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, information and ticketing at 713-315-2525 or 713-558-8887, or online at tuts.com.