Wonder Woman screenwriter Allan Heinberg has specifically cited Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid as an influence on his script. Viewers can easily recognize the scene where Diana rescues Steve Trevor from drowning as a direct reference to the almost identical moment where Ariel first lays eyes on an unconscious Prince Eric on the beach.
I admire how Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins paid homage to the animated classic without aping everything that made it a classic in the first place. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the stage adaptation of that movie that just docked at the Benedum Center.
I certainly don’t blame Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight for producing this touring production of the popular property because they’ve assembled an outstanding and buoyant cast. I’m not sure I can entirely blame the show’s creators Alan Menken (music), the late, great Howard Ashman (lyrics), Glenn Slater (new lyrics for the stage), and Doug Wright (book). Even before the idea to bring Ariel and company to the Broadway stage crossed their desks, it was ill-conceived.
Disney Theatricals justly garnered tons of acclaim for their dazzling stage renderings of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, it seems that all the theatricality and inventiveness the company had to offer was poured into those productions with none left for subsequent mountings of Tarzan, Aida, and, yes, The Little Mermaid.
It has been a long swim for Ariel from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale to the Pittsburgh stage. After a pair of poorly received runs in Denver and New York in 2007, it was back to the drawing board for new director Glenn Casale. He incorporated wire work—in favor of the Heelys (half sneaker, half roller skate) from the original production—to more realistically simulate how mermaids and seagulls glide across the ocean and sky. The effect took my breath away at first, but it eventually wore thinner than the cables holding the actors up.
When combined with Casale’s aerial (pun very much intended) gimmick, Amy Clark and Mark Koss’ overworked costumes and Kenneth Foy’s underwhelming sets create a far too literal translation of the film. In failing to do the impossible task of putting that world on stage exactly how it was initially presented, they do their incredible craftsmanship a disservice.
The one thing that the musical couldn’t corrupt about the characters are their clear-cut motivations. Ariel is a young mermaid who yearns to be “where the people are”. Her father King Triton has a deep-seated prejudice towards humans based on an assumption about his wife’s death. His disgraced, banished sister Ursula (Jennifer Allen, delicious even when saddled with the regrettable new song “Daddy’s Little Angel”) desires revenge and sets her sights on his youngest daughter.
Once Ariel crosses paths with Eric, she easily falls prey to Ursula’s trap and agrees to trade her voice for the chance to be human for three days and share true love’s kiss with her prince. Like any respectable Disney story, there are a host of wacky supporting characters to pick up the slack when our red-headed heroine’s immediate, undying love for our hero gets monotonous.
Musical theatre tropes serve the story best during the Act II opener “Positoovity”. Scuttle’s (Jamie Torcellini) attempts to get Ariel on her feet for the first time erupt into an exuberant tap dance break. Any time Torcellini was off his feet flying like a bird, I felt that I was being robbed of the best this show had to offer.
As Ariel, Diana Huey sells both descriptors in the show’s title. The petite powerhouse’s gorgeous instrument is extremely well-suited to the vocal demands of Ariel’s timeless aria “Part of Your World”. Huey is among the most graceful of the cast members that are repeatedly hoisted up by the wires. She exhibits no signs of strain while singing or maintaining the hula-esque wiggling that dominates the underwater scenes.
Originally the character of Ariel was a lightning rod for feminist critique of the Disney Princess brand. If you’re wondering why, look no further than the characters of Sebastian and Eric who seem to only value Ariel for her voice. Despite that, Melvin Abston (Sebastian) and Eric Kunze (Eric) won me over. The Academy Award-winning showstopper “Under the Sea” and new addition “Her Voice” were standout moments.
As far as laughs go, look to the female ensemble and Dane Stokinger. Seven of the women show of their own impressive pipes doubling as Ariel’s older sisters and eligible bachelorettes vying for Eric’s affection in “The Contest” Stokinger transcends the obvious parallels between his Chef Louis and another Ashman-Menken creation, Lumiere, by making the slapstick antics of “Les Poissons” hilarious to both kids and adults.
There were dozens of little girls buzzing around the lobby clutching their Ariel plush dolls tight, hopes high for the experience of seeing her live in living color. And, while I can’t speak to all their impressions of the show, the fact that the little girl seated next to me did not return for the second act should tell you all you need to know.
The Little Mermaid plays at the Benedum Center through June 25th. For more information, click here.
Photo credits: Steve Wilson and Mark & Tracy Photography.