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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Disney's The Little Mermaid
Hale Centre Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule


Caelan Creaser and Brandon Brown
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw / Hale Centre Theatre
Often credited as the film that got Walt Disney's animation division back on track, the 1989 animated feature The Little Mermaid was also famous for bringing the talents of the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to the masses after they had previously found success Off-Broadway with their musicalized adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors. The duo won Oscars for the Mermaid film and followed it up with the even more popular Beauty and the Beast. After Disney turned both Beauty and The Lion King into hit Broadway shows, it only seemed natural that they'd adapt The Little Mermaid for the stage. While it didn't prove as successful as those other two juggernauts, it does make for a fun, family friendly musical and with an incredibly talented cast and impressive creative elements Hale Center Theatre's production is an engaging crowd-pleaser.

Based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale, The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, a misunderstood Mermaid who is fascinated by the world above the sea and, once she saves a handsome man named Eric from drowning, wants even more to be a part of the human world. However, when her father, King Triton, learns of Ariel's desires, he reminds her that humans killed her mother and that contact with them is forbidden. When Ariel realizes she is in love with Eric she makes a deal with her evil Aunt Ursula, a sea witch who practices black magic, to transform her into a human. Unfortunately for Ariel, the deal comes with strings attached, as Ursula is seeking revenge from being banished from the palace by her brother. Ariel only has three days to get Eric to give her the kiss of true love that will allow her to remain human, or her soul will forever belong to Ursula.

The musical's score features all of the popular tunes from the film as well as about ten new ones with lyrics by Glenn Slater that help flesh out the backstory of Ursula and the inner feelings of both Eric and King Triton. While many of these new songs are good, including a superb quartet in act two, only one, "She's in Love," is as infectious as the film hits "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." Both of those songs, under Cambrian James' always impressive direction and choreography, are turned into huge showstoppers at Hale. Doug Wright's book features plenty of witty lines and jokes that play off the undersea setting, though there are a few drawbacks in the confusing ending that require a little prior knowledge of the film to fill in the gaps.

Hale's crackerjack creative team delivers a non-stop array of impressive stage designs including exceptional costumes, all made specifically for this production, by Mary Atkinson that are rich in color and creativity. Jeff A. Davis' superb lighting evokes both bright daylight scenes and a few dark and slightly scary underwater moments with subtlety and a beautiful palette of sea colors. Brian Daily's inventive set pieces help quickly portray a ship and the various underwater locations. James' direction provides plenty of bright and comical scenes as well as some serious and even heartbreaking moments (the darker sections with the evil Ursula weren't too scary to frighten the many young theatregoers at the performance I attended). James has the show moving at a quick clip, and Elizabeth Spencer's music direction achieves full and lush harmonies from the leads and ensemble.

Hale continually provides opportunities for some of the Valley's most gifted performers, and their cast for this show is exceptional. Caelan Creaser projects the right combination of inquisitive innocence with a huge dose of upbeat excitement as Ariel. Both she and Matt Krantz, making his Hale debut as a very charming and likable Eric, have beautifully clear singing voices that bring their many numbers vibrantly alive. Melissa VanSlyke is having a blast as the evil Ursula with a subtle injection of glee in every evil thing she does and a big, brassy voice that makes her songs soar.

As Sebastian, Ariel's prim and proper crab friend, Vinny Chavez gets to lead the show's two big showstoppers and brings a lot of joy and good comic timing to the part. Ben Mason interjects the right balance of parental concern and tough love as King Triton and provides several moving moments in the second act, especially in his beautiful singing contribution in the "If Only" quartet. Raymond Barcelo is doing double duty as the scatterbrained, know-it-all seagull Scuttle and the flamboyant Chef Louis, with great comic timing and a huge amount of hilarity in both parts. Brandon Brown is incredibly charming and sweet as Flounder, Ariel's young fish friend, while Brandon Reyes and Alex Partida are deliciously evil as Ursula's two moray eel henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam. Jason Hammond provides the right level of concern as Eric's guardian Grimsby.
The Hale ensemble for this production have to be the hardest working I've ever seen. Anissa Griego, Heidi-Liz Johnson, Nicole Knox, Ariana Lucius, Phoebe Koyabe, and Angela Kriese play Ariel's six sisters, Eric's potential brides, and numerous other roles, and Jeremy Cruz, Matt Drui, Nicholas Hambruch, and Adam Lundgreen portray sailors, undersea creatures, and other parts all with what seems like split second costume changes.

Disney's theatrical adaptation of The Little Mermaid is a fairly by the numbers retelling of the hugely successful animated film. However, most of the added songs written for the stage version aren't quite up to the standards of the Oscar winning film score and there are a few issues with plot holes in the book. However, it still succeeds in being a very fun and engaging stage musical. While Hale can't be faulted for the show's few drawbacks, their fast-paced staging, expert cast, and stunning creative elements help to compensate for the issues I have with the stage version, and the end result is a beautifully lush, colorful and fun, family-friendly treat.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of Disney's The Little Mermaid runs through August 19th, 2017, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181

Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Directed and Choreographed by Cambrian James
Music Director: Elizabeth Spencer
Set Technical Director: Brian Daily
Costume Designer: Mary Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Wigs and Make-Up: Cambrian James
Props: McKenna Carpenter & Monica Christiansen
Sound Design/Stage Manager: Justin Peterson

Cast:
Ariel: Caelan Creaser
Prince Eric: Matt Krantz
Ursula: Melissa VanSlyke
Sebastian: Vinny Chavez
King Triton: Ben Mason
Scuttle/Chef Louis: Raymond Barcelo
Flounder: Brandon Brown
Flotsam: Brandon Reyes
Jetsam: Alex Partida
Grimsby: Jason Hammond
Male Ensemble: Jeremy Cruz, Matt Drui, Nicholas Hambruch, Adam Lundgreen
Female Ensemble: Anissa Griego, Heidi-Liz Johnson, Nicole Knox, Ariana Lucius, Phoebe Koyabe, Angela Kriese


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