The latest Disney Production to take up residency along The Great White Way is based on the magical Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.” Disney turned the story into a classic 1989 animated film that b
oasts an Academy Award winning score and song, “Under the Sea,” by Alan Menken and his long time collaborator the late Howard Ashman. The two attained fame with their superb musical “Little Shop of Horrors” 25 years ago.
The vividly colorful Disney Musical is surprisingly bland despite the marvelous score and a creative team from the opera world led by the renowned director Francesca Zambello. The evening has a neat gimmick that has the cast gliding all over the stage on Heelys to simulate swimming under the sea. The effect is fun to watch, but doesn’t really work, playing more like elaborately costumed skaters on ice.
The action of the beloved fairy tale takes place in a magical kingdom beneath the enchanted sea, where Ariel, a beautiful young mermaid, longs to leave her ocean home to meet a handsome prince, who lives in the human world above. To accomplish her wish she will not only need to defy her father, the king of the sea, but she will strike a risky bargain with the evil sea witch Ursula.
The Disney Production with 10 additional new songs by Mr. Menken, which he wrote with the lyricist Glenn Slater, and a book by the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Doug Wright manages to dilute the charm out of the original 90 minute film; blowing it up to 2 ½ hours of excess that turns the evening into a circus like vision that feels more synthetic than alive.
After the big opening number, “Fathoms Below” beautifully sung by the ensemble of sailors led by Prince Eric aboard a gigantic plastic ship cruising the plastic looking sea, the musical sails along at a rather limp pace. The story unfolds in a series of lovely songs delivered admirably by the competent cast with outstanding voices. But the staging of the musical numbers feels static with uninspired or non existent choreography and little chemistry between the performers. Not until the Academy Award winning song “Under the Sea” near the end of the first act, do we get a richly satisfying staging of a song that feels deserving of the source material and all the money. Here we get a taste of what might have been with a Las Vegas like extravaganza that fills the stage with finally some interesting movement and vibrant iridescent costumes.
The second act picks up considerably starting off with the up lifting tap number “Positoovity,” that feels like a take off on The Rockettes, in fact most of the new material feels derivative and unnecessary like the creators wanted to plump up the show in an attempt to justify the ticket price with more bang for your dollar. Sherie Rene Scott in a Medusa like wig and an outrageously padded costume that accentuates her hour glass waist is a stand out as Ursula. She alone stamps her role with a unique style that is delightfully alive, but even her venomous turn is underwritten and her climactic clash with Ariel over her prized possession, the powerful seashell, comes off like a minor tussle.
This Little Mermaid may not make the splash Disney had hoped for, but I am sure it will stay afloat for quite some time supported by devoted fans from the target audience. But the evening has none of the magical freshness of Julie Taymor’s 1998 breathtaking spectacle “The Lion King.” That monster hit musical, which won Disney numerous Tony Awards, is still running and well worth a second visit or a first if you have never seen it. You can probably find
discounted tickets and save enough money to gift the little ones with copies of the recently re-released 2006 platinum edition Little Mermaid DVD. If you must, splurge and go! You probably will have a great time, but bring along the kids for added pleasure.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
“The Little Mermaid” opened on Broadway at the Lunt–Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, on January 10, 2008. Tickets are available through Tickmaster at 212-307-4747, online at HYPERLINK "http://www.DisneyOnBroadway.com" www.DisneyOnBroadway.com or at the box office.