AISLE SAY New York
THE LITTLE MERMAID
Book by Doug Wright
Music by Alan Menken
Original Lyrics by Howard Ashman
New and Revised Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Based on the story by Hans
and the Disney film written by
John Musker and Ron Clements
Directed by Fracesca Zamello
Lunt Fontanne Theatre / 205 West 46th Street
Reviewed by Mike Princeton
Despite its being little more in essence than a theme-parked transposition of a Disney animation, the stage version of The Little Mermaid, which opened recently at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, has to be reviewed in several contexts, because in each, the outcome is vastly different.
Context #1: Children
And perhaps most emphatically little girls.
If they were weaned on the VHS or laser-disk release of the original you undoubtedly have in your home, they're primed to have a good time—identifying the characters, recognizing the songs, rooting for Ariel, who is their fantasy role model: a princess whose desire to grow up and meet the prince of her dreams comes true. It's a familiar story presented in a new way, with lots of enthusiastic, committed actors, bright colors, and enough action to hold their attention for an astonishing two hours, not including the intermission.
Of course you have to decide on the ticket price investment. With the top at a staggering $110 per seat, you want your evening of happy to resonate for a long time to come. So determine what you want it to accomplish. (Let's put aside whether or not the child's heart's desire is to be there, because if it is, then of course you must get her there if you can, case closed.) If it's simply to give her another incarnation of the franchise...there are many other ways to do that, as well as many other videos as charming and meaningful you can add to your family library for the same $110. For all the money sunk into the production, it's a pretty cheesy-looking affair (more on that later) and aesthetically no more effective than one of the top drawer touring children's shows pumped out by specialists like Theatreworks/USA, none of whose budgets come within miles of a single million, let alone several.
If however your desire is to introduce or encourage a love of the theatre, with a familiar story and score as a lure and a way in...well, that's it, Sold American, and mission, very likely, accomplished. It matters not what we as adults would think, The Little Mermaid has the right kind of eye candy (sea witch Ursula's costume with its giant moving tentacles; you don't think of it as master puppetry, but it is), and mind-candy to fire the imagination (everybody who's supposed to live underwater, with the exception of Sebastian the sea crab [we sort of take it on faith that he scuttles, though Tituss Burgess mostly walks and dances], glides around on well-camouflaged roller-blades, which is supposed to conjure the illusion of swimming, and in a young mind, probably will).
Context #2: Us
For you and me, though? Disappointing, to put it mildly.
Scenically, opera director Francesca Zambello and her designers (scenery: George Tsypin; costumes: Tatiana Noginova; lighting: Natasha Katz; make-up: Angelina Avallone) just haven't solved it, though they throw some noble ideas at it. Underwater, backdrops of what looks like textured plastic stand in for the ocean blue; and as for the various depths, they're conveyed by what seems like transparent, plastic, articulated curtains, that can collapse in on themselves and then stretch up, accordion-style. Swimming up to the surface happens behind or between them in a Flipping by Foy manner, with carefully engineered and choreographed twists and gainers performed in an unapologetically visible harness. It's all rather like an elaborate shower curtain festival, and would serve as well housing an industrial show for Bed, Bath and Beyond.
The aforementioned roller-bladery doesn't convince either, because it's a visibly utilitarian solution to a poetic problem. Which must sound a hifalutin mouthful, so let me put it in more basic terms:
In a previous, still-running Disney show, The Lion King, director Julie Taymor completely re-imagines the physical ground-rules of the jungle, such that the symbolism is established as its own unique theatre language. The multi-function costumes that emerge right from the start so brazenly announce her poetic intention—to make each actor and his/her puppet an intertwined unit with both the human and cartoon faces simultaneously visible—that we instinctively understand the invitation to be complicit in an illusion. And at that, an illusion that will inform everything to follow.
But in The Little Mermaid, despite scenery that is clearly symbolic, one feels the effort of reaching for literal substitution. The use of roller blades doesn't make you think, oh, look, gliding across the floor equals gliding through the water. Rather it makes you acutely aware of how flat the floor is, how strained the metaphor, and how earthbound everything feels despite the costumes.
And about those costumes. My evening's companion made the observation that they looked as if someone very creative went wild foraging for supplies at the 99˘ store. And indeed, there seems to be a lot of glitter, a lot of day-glo color, a lot of plastic shiny things, a lot of outfits assembled according to step-by-steps in a "You Can Make Animal Costumes" workbook for the home or school hobbyist. A notable exception are the above-referenced costumes designed for the sea-witch Ursula, whose tentacles dominate the stage when she appears, in an impressively malign curling and uncurling manner, reminiscent of the vines and leaves of Little Shop's Audrey II.
The performances are shamelessly aimed at children (nothing wrong with that, just know it going in), emulating the animated film where creatures and archetypes are concerned, allowing a bit more leeway within the template for human (and half-human) characters; and everything, from Ariel's yearning to Ursula's evil is played with big, bold, unequivocal strokes, without any tempering subtlety. The cast is solidly professional, fine actors and vocalists all, but save for Sheree Renee Scott's show-bizzy Ursula—a role which allows for some vampy interpretation unique to the performer—they are so locked into serving the franchise that any actors of equivalent skill and suitability would do as well. I will say that, within those constraints, I admire Sierra Boggess for putting as much charm into Ariel as she does; Eddie Korbich for being so fearlessly goofy as the seagull Scuttle; and perhaps most of all, Broadway's longest-reigning Max Bialystock, John Treacy Egan, as the maniacal French chef who, with the broadest accent possible, sings "Les Poissons" (the fish) and gets to exult in one of Howard Ashman's most insanely inspired couplets: "Les poissons! Les poissons! Hee-hee-hee! Honh-honh-honh!"
And that brings us to the score. As you've heard by now, the original songs by Ashman and composer Alan Menken are far more effective than the interpolated new ones by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, but it's not for any lack of talent on Slater's part, nor even because Menken was seemingly on automatic pilot for a portion of this filler work. Rather, it's because it is filler work. Doug Wright's book for the stage adaptation has had to expand upon a 75 minute animated feature, to make it sustain for two acts and about two full hours of playing time. And stretching out something whose compactness is one of its strengths is rarely a rewarding job, because it means adding sub-plots that don't truly impact upon the primary story beats, fleshing out minor characters we either donŐt care about or just donŐt need more of, and padding the original beats and characters as much as one dares. Any songs generated from that work would therefore be destined to compound the intention of slowing forward movement. They don't exist because they're essential—indeed they're the opposite. Slater has in fact provided some very clever wordplay, but lacking dramatic substance, it lacks feeling necessary, and is thus the skill invested is easily undervalued.
All in all, The Little Mermaid feels like something unrealized and assembled in too great a hurry to fill the slot left by the departing of Beauty and the Beast.
#3: The Children in Us
Adults with a soft spot for childhood icons would do well to focus those affections elsewhere. The Broadway Little Mermaid does not have the requisite richness of vision to satisfy grownups on their own.
ItŐs another story, however, if you attend in the company of children, and find joy in watching them watch the show. For what it's worth, and for some it may be worth enough, the night I attended, I was seated in a row behind a mother, father and two young daughters. The eldest couldn't have been older than seven, the youngest not older than four. Save for one moment, during some obvious padding, when the younger one adorably turned to her mother and asked "Where's Ariel?" (the instincts of a story editor in the making, I tell you!), both young ladies sat attentively, enthusiastically and quietly throughout it all. To hold the focus of even the most well-mannered child that long is no mean feat. And sometimes watching a child's eyes grow wide with wonder is the show. And it almost doesn't matter what's on stage: that's what you'll remember. And thatŐs why youŐre there.