Wednesday, September 27, 2017

"Disney's The Little Mermaid"

Disney’s The Little Mermaid
Alan Menken (Music); Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater (Lyrics); Doug Wright (Book)

The Cast of The Little Mermaid
A stage-filling, blue screen full of bubbles that boringly bobbled up and down a few inches in each direction as the packed audience filled the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts should have been all the evidence we needed.  Unlike most recent Broadway San Jose shows (including some by Disney), this show was unfortunately going to look like a slimmed-down, rather hokey touring version ... and nothing like the original 2008 Broadway show.  More bubbles (this time very evidently plastic) would make lots of undersea and seashore appearances along with a ship that looked made of cardboard, an underwater haven for a young mermaid’s treasures that had no magical feel, and a castle’s interior walls that seemed to have roots growing on the wall paper (left over from Sleeping Beauty?).  I am not sure what Broadway veteran scenic designer Kenneth Foy had in mind, but his budget must have been slashed for this particular production.

That said, fortunately the music of Alan Menken along with the lyrics of Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater are fun, hummable, and often quite beautiful, making Disney’s The Little Mermaid a perennial favorite for audience’s worldwide since the animated version first appeared in 1989.  Doug Wright also has ensured that the musical’s book continues the Disney tradition of including much humor that plays well across a wide spectrum of ages.  There is no lack of groaner puns and lines of humor that may be missed by the munchkins but will resonate with their parents.  And in this touring version, there is a cast that overall does justice to the book and the music, providing much squealing delight especially for all the little girls in their mermaid outfits and the little boys who are trying ever so hard not to show how much they are actually enjoying a story about a mermaid.

Diana Huey
Rising out of those fake-looking bubbles that are supposed to represent waves on a shore, a young girl emerges.  With long, red hair and a flowing outfit that undulates her swimming motions as she explores “The World Above,” she immediately proves that her wonder-filled voice is that familiar, Disney-heroine voice 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 to her secret, underwater trove -- showing off found treasures of “whozits”, “whatzits,” and “thingamabobs.”  The little-girl tones of innocence and wonder that Diana Huey employs in the beginning of “Part of Your World” give way to sustained notes showing more power and confidence as she declares, “Out of sea, wish I could be part of that world.”

Eric Kunze
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 Eric Kunze seems a bit old for the role of the Prince (his online bio on Wikipedia puts him 45-46 years old).  However, he does bring some of the night’s best vocals in songs like “One Step Closer,” where he tells the now-silent Ariel that “a dance is like a conversation ... you speak as one, cheek to cheek, toe to toe, heart to heart.”

That Ariel has no voice is no surprise to Little Mermaid aficionados.  Ursula, the evil sister of Ariel’s royal father (King Tritan, played with much royal dignity by Steve Blanchard), 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 unless Prince Eric kisses her before the third sunset. 

Brandon Roach, Jennifer Allen & Frederick Hagreen
With a mouth wide as an ocean cave, hair with peaks like underwater mountains, and eyes that cross and glare with the fury of an ocean volcano, this red-lipped, purple-skinned Ursala particularly likes to use her many tentacles to enlarge her menacing presence (when she is not lovingly cuddling some of them in her arms).  Jennifer Allen’s throaty 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, or a dozen other sources of song genres.  When speaking, she suddenly goes from Lucille Ball’s and Carol Burnett’s high, squeaky ranges to the deep, scary gravelly levels of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  As in many Disney outings both on screen and on stage, the villainess – in this case an underwater witch -- is the real star of the night.

Ursula is often joined by her slithery henchmen with their electrified bodies sparking, Flotsam (Brandon Roach) and Jetsam (Frederick Hagreen).  Both skate around their watery world singing with edgy, cartoonish voices their twosome version of “Sweet Child.”

The Cast of The Little Mermaid
Disney’s original movie has a couple of memorable ‘big’ numbers most fans will quickly recall and look forward to seeing, whether on screen or on stage.  Choreographer John MacInnis and Costume Co-Designers Amy Clark and Mark Koss have combined efforts to produce an underwater panorama of colorful schools of fish, floating and twirling crustaceans, and graceful jellies in “Under the Sea.”  However, this version seems to have trouble deciding with its black-light-lit psychedelic colors and fishes full of feathers if it is Summer of Love, Carnivale, or Las Vegas that is occurring under this sea. 

Later, a big number that totally misses the boat is “Kiss the Girl” -- a sequence when Ariel’s lobster friend, Sebastian, usually leads a lake full of floating and flying creatures in a mesmerizing, romantic enticer to lead the Prince toward Ariel’s lips.  In this production, there is little beauty engendered of a special evening as the couple moves around in a motorized rowboat on a mostly blank stage.  Offstage, non-distinct voices join Sebastian and a sea gull named Scuttle in what should be a winner of a song but in this production, is quite underwhelming.

As Sebastian, Melvin Abston does get some of the best lines of the night (“This is going to get me in real hot water” ... a place no lobster wants to be), and Mr. Abston is great also in adlibbing along the way (or at least appearing to do so).  His Jamaican accent could use more consistency, and his singing numbers are adequate but not altogether noteworthy; but he does wonderfully move sideways much like a real crustacean, snapping his claws along the way.

The show’s funniest scene involves Sebastian trying to escape the carving knife of the deliciously hilarious Chef Louis (Dane Stokinger).  As he sings in comical French style and then reprises “Les Poissons,” his line-up of suddenly disappearing, white-aproned cooks find their match in a lobster who has no intention of being the evening’s main course.

Scuttle the gull 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 squawking, fellow gulls that do some cute imitations of Jimmy Durante with their cocked heads shaking along with feathered hands/wings pulsing.

There are flaws aplenty in how cheesy this production often looks  -- especially in the fairly lame, “non”-special effects such as when Ariel’s underwater haven is blown up by her royal father or when Ursula finally is destroyed due to Ariel’s ingenuity.  However, the constant ‘swimming’ effects that occur in the movements of on-stage and in-flight mermaids, mermen, and other sea creatures is extremely impressive, thanks to Paul Rubin. 

While this Little Mermaid does not overall match the quality and wow-effects of other Disney productions that have made their way both to San Jose and San Francisco in recent years, I must report that the San Jose audience – especially all those little costumed girls and big-eyed boys – really did enjoy the opening night.  Along with their parents, the cast received a sustained, enthusiastic, standing ovation.  (I stood reluctantly.)

Rating: 3 E

Disney’s The Little Mermaid continues through October 1, 2017, at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at

Photo Credit by Steve Wilson

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