Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
The beloved Disney classic The Little Mermaid has set ashore in La Mirada. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story which inspired the 1989 animated film, this stage musical unites the magical worlds both above and under the sea. It also joins the harmonic efforts of Alan Menken (music), Doug Wright (book), Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater (lyrics) under the inspired direction of Glenn Casale. After a 2008 Broadway run, this on-again/off-again “touring” production brings a modified book and direction — the result of a 2012 reinvention — to La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid tells the tale of Ariel (Alison Woods), a beautiful, ocean-dwelling mermaid who longs to discover a home beyond her familiar waters. Meanwhile, the charming land-dweller Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) seems to be more interested in pursuing life as a sailor than fulfilling his role as future king. As destiny would have it, the two meet and hearts are aflutter. But can a human and mermaid get the happily-ever-after promised so many lovers in Disney adaptations? Let’s just say, Hans Christian Andersen doesn’t get the last word.
Fans of the animated flick are in luck. Part of Your World, Under the Sea, Poor Unfortunate Souls, and Kiss the Girl remain intact, though tweaks have been made to the book. Flounder (Adam Garst), Ariel’s fin-flipping friend, has morphed from her adorable, childlike sidekick to an infatuate in “guppy love.” Garst’s endearing emo delivery enhanced by his mohawk and blue lips give the role a melodramatic, yet sympathetic angst. Also, sea witch and beloved villainess Ursula (Tracy Lore) is now the conniving sister of Ariel’s father King Triton (Fred Inkley), resurrecting a relationship from the film’s first draft.
Regardless of these revisions, Wright’s book follows the Disney tradition of delighting children and adults alike, even when jokes whoosh over little ones’ heads. It’s witty and clever, as are Ashman and Slater’s lyrics. Menken’s music is spectacular, including new tunes written for the musical. She’s In Love brings a 50s hip-swinging doo wop sound, while the stunning Prince Eric power ballad, Her Voice sets up the soaring, If Only (Quartet) that’s so gorgeous and dramatic it almost feels too serious for a children’s “man-maid” love story — but god it’s good!
Woods’s Ariel is quintessential Disney. She has the delicate look and silky-smooth vibrato one would expect of our red-headed heroine. And while her vocal stylizations are often film-based and predictable, her overall recreation’s unmistakably lovely. Kunze’s Prince Eric is more manly than boyish, with powerful pipes luscious and rich. Jamaican crab Sebastian (Melvin Abston) is joyously comedic, though it’s his lofty vocals that give the role a welcomed fresh take. Jeff Skowron as the larger-than-life French Chef Louis gets the show’s biggest laughs; his over-the-top antics rivaling his ridiculously towering chef hat. King Triton (Fred Inkley) is less godly than fatherly, substituting an intimidating “King of the Sea” masculinity for a gentler protectiveness. And Tracy Lore’s Ursula plays perfect homage to Divine, the drag queen who inspired the voluptuous, tentacled diva. Her physicality is outrageous and bold, almost worth selling one’s voice to behold.
Kenneth Foy’s scenic design and Charlie Morrison’s lighting takes us inside kingdoms — from sea floor to shore — with vivid colors, beautiful backdrops, three-dimensional bubbles and scrims that bring the underwater to life. Julie Ferrin and Gareth Owen’s sound design in conjunction with an orchestra under the music direction of Colin R. Freeman is a seascape for the ears. Amy Clark and Mark Koss’s costumes shun subtlety, from giant, poofy dresses to fanciful imitations of sea creatures — the “light up” electric eels (Scott T. Leiendecker and Jeffrey Christopher Todd in slimy henchman mode) are especially impressive. Leah J. Loukas’s hair and wig design complements these spectacular guises beautifully.
John MacInnis’s choreography is vibrant and lively, whether on land or underwater. Mixed with Paul Rubin’s flying (aka “swimming”) choreography, it’s a subaquatic extravaganza. Even when standing on the ocean floor, our sea-dwellers roll their bodies as if being moved by currents, immersing us in their world with specificity and wonder — some gliding across the stage on wheels, others “floating” above it. It’s magical.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is pure entertainment: gorgeous melodies, elaborate design, wit and whimsy. There’s enough from the film to satisfy purists, yet enough revisioning that it’s worth revisiting. While these ocean waters aren’t exactly deep, they sure make a great splash.
Now playing through June 26, 2016
Photo (above) Courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars: Adam Garst and Alison Woods in the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts/McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid