The Little Mermaid
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 31, 2008
(Note: There are some good summaries of the plot of The Little Mermaid, should you need one, here.)
The little girl who sat in front of me at The Little Mermaid—no more than six or seven years old, so small that she needed two booster cushions on her chair to see—jumped up to give the show a standing ovation at the curtain call. (She was by no means alone.) This was after sitting enrapt and attentive for nearly 2-1/2 hours. She looked very happy.
And that's really all you need to know about Disney's latest musical on Broadway. There is plenty to criticize in this production, but the overall experience turns out nevertheless to be entertaining and in its way even satisfying. I haven't sat with a more enthusiastic crowd since Jersey Boys.
One reason that the show finally seems to work is that its creators have stuck with the familiar—and the familiar is pretty good stuff. Rather than radically reinvent a beloved work as they did with Mary Poppins, or translate a significantly lesser one to the stage as they did with Tarzan, the Disney people have taken one of their esteemed properties and reproduced it as faithfully as possible in this new medium. All the famous Ashman-Menken songs are here, including Ariel (the title character's) song of longing "Part of Your World," the charming calypso-flavored "Under the Sea," and the evil sea witch Ursula's comical vaudeville-style number "Poor Unfortunate Souls," which is the closest thing this show has to a show-stopper in the capable hands (er, tentacles) of Sherie Rene Scott.
Better still is the climactic "Kiss the Girl," sung by Ariel's sidekick Sebastian the Crab to the human prince who may be able to break the spell Ariel is under. For this, the creative team come as close as they ever do to perfection, with George Tsypin's sets, Tatiana Noginova's costumes, Natasha Katz's lighting, and a variety of showy effects combining to create some beautiful and magical stage pictures. The Little Mermaid zooms from this point on to a socko finish, complete with oversized confetti flying out of the sky for the wedding finale.
Another reason that I think audiences like the piece has to do with its simple, clear theme of good versus evil. (Caution: spoiler ahead! If you don't know or don't want to know how The Little Mermaid ends, do not read any more of this paragraph.) During Ariel and Ursula's final confrontation, spunky Ariel scoops up Ursula's magic seashell and hurls it to the ground, destroying the evil witch. And then, in the next scene, the seashell is still intact, Ariel's good father King Triton is back in command, and all is right with the world. I think we'd all like to be able to smite the evil witch and make the world good again. For a few minutes, in this show, we get to do exactly that, if only vicariously.
Now, while this is a show that delivers on many fronts, it also lets us down, over and over again. The new songs, about a dozen in number, are all mediocre at best; one of them, the Act Two opener "Positoovity," is a very lame attempt at a "Supercalifragilistic..."-type show-stopper that falls very flat indeed. The sets and costumes are very odd in that most of the time it is hard to tell what they're supposed to represent, but the colors on stage always blend beautifully together, thanks presumably to the expert work of lighting designer Katz and the keen eye of director Francesca Zambello. The staging is generally unimaginative, though, and the choreography by Stephen Mear is never interesting or exciting enough for a big-budget Broadway musical.
The ensemble, hard-working to be sure, feels small (there are 18 people listed in the program, but you almost never see that many people on stage at the same time). The featured performers, apart from Scott, only rarely shine; theatre pros like Norm Lewis (who plays King Triton), Jonathan Freeman (Prince Eric's mentor, Grimsby), and Eddie Korbich (Scuttle the Sea Gull) are more or less wasted in thankless roles. But Sierra Boggess, the young woman who plays the title role, is very endearing in the part, and sings sweetly; and Titus Burgess (Sebastian) and Tyler Maynard and Derrick Baskin (as Ursula's henchmen—er, hench-eels) make strong impressions.
I kept wanting it to be better, but when all was said and done I found nonetheless that I had had a better-than-ok time at The Little Mermaid. And the many young kids in the audience seemed to be satisfied, and that says a lot, because kids are the most honest audience there is. This show is for them.