Colorful costumed fish appear to swim across the stage (with the help of clever roller-skate shoes). Seagulls fly and mermaids swim (thanks to ‘Peter Pan’ style rigging). Huge waves splash and crash, octopus women grow to six times their normal size (using massive screened projections) and six-foot strands of seaweed bob and wiggle in time to the music (dancers dressed in seaweed suits).
But of all the special effects employed in Spreckels Theater Company’s splashy new production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” the most impressive is the cast.
For one thing, it takes a lot of professionalism and skill to stand on stage dressed as a lobster, a fish, an octopus, or, you know, a mer-person, and not look at least a little bit silly. But the actors, singers and dancers pull it off, summoning an infectious amount of high-spirited fun, displaying tireless musical panache—frequently transcending the script’s numerous flaws, the slightly clumsy staging that surfaces here and there, and a confusing, undercooked climax.
Such criticisms hardly matter, though.
With solid, sometimes stellar singing voices, and a degree of onstage dazzle dazzle pretty much unmatched by any other local show in recent memory, “The Little Mermaid” is poised to pack Spreckels with happy families, led by parents eager to introduce their kids to the spectacle of live performance.
And “spectacle” is definitely the word for the “Little Mermaid.”
As directed by Gene Abravaya, the transition from animated movie to theatrical extravaganza (though somewhat over-long, and burdened by a number of surprisingly clunky script problems) is never less than visually dazzling. Abravaya captures the nostalgic push-pull of the beloved fairytale, while always providing something interesting to look at. The live orchestra is strong—with fine musical direction by Tina Lloyd Meals—and the singing and dancing of the leads and an enormous ensemble is uniformly excellent.
There’s food for the heart to, not just candy for the eyes.
Though the performers are dressed like bizarre carnival dancers on the world’s weirdest Mardi Gras float, the familiar story of a little mermaid in love with a human manages to establish an authentic human connection—if not always, then at least frequently. It somehow feels fresh and fun, rising from the colorful chaos, when it needs to, to give the audience a dose of something that is sweetly and genuinely moving.
Ariel (Julianne Thompson Bretan, excellent) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Steven Kent Barker), but has grown tired of being a mermaid. Accompanied by her fish-friend Flounder (a delightful Fernando Siu) and the Jiminy Cricket-like crab Sebastian (Robert Finney), and with the skewed advice of the obtuse seagull Scuttle (Sean O’Brien), Ariel has amassed a collection of artifacts from the human world. Though conflicted by these feelings, she dreams of someday walking amongst the land dwellers.
After breaking mer-folk law and saving the life of a drowning Prince (Jacob Bronson), Ariel alienates herself from her father when she admits she’s fallen in love with the human.
Tricked by Tritan’s envious, tentacled sister Ursula (Mary Gannon Graham, playing the villain with a sense of gleefully subdued menace), Ariel agrees to trade her voice for a chance to be human for three days. If the prince kisses her before sunset on the third day, she will remain human.
If not, Ursula will collect her soul.
With Graham rocking those octopus tentacles, we know this Ursula means business, too. (Though what is it that keeps Graham locked in place, seated as she often is on various set pieces? Our squiddly villainess would be even more menacing if she could actually, you know, get up and move around).
Most of composer Alan Menken’s songs from the original movie are here, including the Oscar winning “Under the Sea,” plus “Kiss the Girl,” “Part of My World,” and even the grisly delight “Le Poisson,” in which the Prince’s royal chef (a hilarious Jeremy Berrick) describes chopping and cooking up sea creatures. As staged here, it’s gloriously gross, and very funny.
A number of new tunes have been added to the stage version, though (with lyricist Glenn Slater replacing the late Howard Ashman), but with the exception of the glorious “She’s in Love” and the powerful “If Only,” most of the new songs fail to deliver much that feels worth the effort, and in general, they tend to slow down the pace of the show.
Most problematic is ‘Beyond My Wildest Dreams,” a pretty-but-perfunctory addition which Ariel sings after she’s given up her voice and gained her two legs.
I know, I know. I get it. She’s not really singing.
She’s just expressing her secret thoughts.
But it’s genuinely confusing (especially to young ones, who will be brought to the show en masse, and should be; it’s really a family show to its core) and it’s not really so strong a tune that it needed to be in the show at all. That said, the song is beautifully sung by Breten, who does such good work expressing Ariel’s feeling without uttering a word, I’m sorry the Disney folk didn’t trust the power of the story (and the actresses who would be playing Ariel) and allow those emotions to be conveyed through the acting and the plot.
The costumes by Pam Enz are spectacular, and the choreography by Michella Snider is peppy and clever, nicely employing those aforementioned roller-shoes, and joyfully creating a sense of underwater movement.
Special mention should be also given to Abby Chambers and Joshua Bailey, who play Ursula’s sneaky, creepy electric eel henchmen (hench-creatures?) Flotsam and Jetsam. In Chambers and Bailey’s inspired, out-sized, truly amusing performances, the production displays an additional bit of “The Little Mermaid’s” original animated DNA.
Ultimately, “The Little Mermaid” succeeds by giving audiences what they want. Yes, there are a number of pacing problems, and some clumsy staging that occasionally makes it hard to know where to look when something important is happening on stage. And, yes, a major climactic turn is played so casually it comes as a bit of a shock when we realize that the show’s big moment just came and went.
But let’s face it. No one comes to the “The Little Mermaid” looking for subtlety, logic, or carefully crafted dramatic escalations.
There is plenty of color and action, love and danger, first-rate singing, a few truly tear-jerking moments, and people dressed like jellyfish.
If that’s not entertaining—and worth the price of a ticket—than I’m not sure what is.
‘The Little Mermaid‘ runs Fridays-Sundays through May 22 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00 p.m., with Saturday matinees on Saturdays and Sundays, and one Thursday night show on May 19, 7:00 p.m. Tickets $16-$26. Call box office at 707-583-3800.