The Little Mermaid

Turning animated films into Broadway hits has been a staple for Disney since Beauty and the Beast's successful proof-of-concept in 1994, but the Mouse House is no more able to formulate success than any other producer. For every The Lion King and Mary Poppins, there are the less memorable or forgettable King David and Tarzan.

Sierra Boggess as Ariel, The Little Mermaid
Sierra Boggess as Ariel,
The Little Mermaid
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Like its predecessors, The Little Mermaid had a successful run in home video after its collossal big screen release, and judging from the audience's reaction at the world premiere here in Denver, the stage production may have a healthy run in New York and on the road, but there are some serious issues that will likely limit its success.

The major obstacle is the approach taken by noted operatic scenic and costume designers George Tsypin and Tatiana Noginova toward the underwater environment. Projected phosphorescent effects of shells and sea creatures and bubbles work well, but are too sparsely employed to make a lasting impression; instead, the audience's imagination is left to chew on nondescript plasticized "stones" and uninspired fluttering "waves" of fabric for that deep-sea feeling.

Skating through this ersatz aquarium are mermaids on rollerblades, tightly wrapped in scaled skirts, with their tails wiggling behind, and a collection of unidentifiable creatures more attuned to a post-apocalyptic masked ball than a fairytale. Perhaps oceanic pollution has caused these mutations; nevertheless, even the generosity of adolescent imaginations will be pressed by this aesthetic mish-mash.

The divergence of purpose between set and the action illustrates perfectly the difference between operatic scenery, which serves as an contemplative background to the voice and music, and theatrical scenery, which serves the action. The Little Mermaid is not an opera, yet it designed like one, abstract and conceptual, with some tricks and eye candy to keep the iPod generation interested.

Sean Palmer as Prince Eric and Sierra Boggess as Ariel
Sean Palmer as Prince Eric
and Sierra Boggess as Ariel
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
To be sure, the performances are splendid. Local wunderkind Sierra Boggess as Ariel, the title character, is charming—not to mention her dead-on send-up of the animated heroine and her delightful soprano—and she is surrounded by strong performances, including Sean Palmer's enthusiastic and kind Prince Eric.

Norm Lewis' resonant tones and impressive sculpted pecs establish his god-like credentials as King Triton, while Sherie Rene Scott deftly blends sinister and camp in the arch-antagonist Ursula, a Medussa-like icon with fashion pizzazz. Tituss Burgess' Sebastian the crab and Eddie Korbich's Scuttle the gull add spark and personality to the sea life.

Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's new songs, including the Prince's "Her Voice," bolster the already robust set of musical numbers from Menken and the late Howard Ashman's original, but Stephen Mear's choreography is uninspired. Again, those rollerblades and confining costumes!

Of course, the formula includes a happy ending—a 180° departure from Hans Christian Anderson's subtle spiritual lesson—though for the sake of clarity with the mass target audience, perhaps this is forgiveable.

Disney Theatrical's The Little Mermaid runs through September 9th at the Buell Theatre before beginning previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on November 3rd in New York. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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