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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Disney's The Little Mermaid Theatrical Stage Musical
Successfully Re-Imagined at Paper Mill


The Little Mermaid
During intermission at Paper Mill Playhouse, four-year-old Mia usually likes to sit by the bubbling pond in the open courtyard alongside the theater to watch the colorful tropical fish swimming vigorously. This time Mia barely reached the pond's edge before pulling her father back toward the theatre. Mia wanted to return as quickly as possible because she was worried about the fate of Ariel—the heroine of the newly conceived musical stage production of Disney's The Little Mermaid —and wanted to know what would next happen as quickly as possible.

And why not?

Before the intermission, mermaid Princess Ariel meets, rescues and falls desperately in love with human Prince Eric. The powerful and terrifying sea witch Ursula takes advantage of her predicament (a mermaid and a human may fall in love, but where would they live?) and bamboozles her into a perilous agreement: Ursula will make Ariel human for three days and take her voice in return. If Ariel kisses Eric within those three days, she will remain human forever, but if not, she will be turned back into a mermaid and belong to Ursula.

During the final moments of act one the spell is cast and, aided by a high tech computer operated flying apparatus, Ariel swims upward toward the top of the proscenium. Her gauzy, flowing mermaid tail drops away to reveal human legs as the "water" (the impressive effect includes dozens of transparent spheres evocative of air bubbles) drops away below her. The unconscious Ariel re-appears washed up on the shore. As the orchestral underscoring of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's "Part of Your World" reached a dramatic crescendo and the first act curtain began to fall, I felt a visceral chill induced by the musical theatre magic on the Paper Mill stage.

Mia would not want me to give anything away, but the second act does not disappoint. The rousing score, laudable cast and dazzling set each contribute to the enchanting and memorable experience of Paper Mill's impressive production.

The enhanced full length score is particularly impressive. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater (taking over lyricist duty from the late Howard Ashman) have written ten new songs to supplement the seven songs which Menken and Ashman wrote for the film. Although on occasion Slater's lyrics fail to match the sophisticated rhyming skill of Ashman, they display considerable, superior talent. The beautiful, highly sophisticated, richly melodic second act "If Only" (Quartet) consisting of two Menken-Slater songs ("If Only" and "Her Voice") exceeds all expectations. Their new songs not only make an impressive score in and of themselves, but they also blend in perfectly with the existing film score.

One of the new songs, "She's in Love," is so entrancing and appropriate (and Menken-Ashman-like) that the film now feels truncated without it. Performed terrifically by Kristine Bennett, Nicole Javanna Johnson, Lisa Karlin, Morgan Kirner, Erica Mansfield, and Jessica Wockenfuss (Ariel's sisters) and Christian Probst (Flounder), it is a rollicking doo-wop tune ("shoop, shoop, shoop, shoop") with a clever, very funny lyric. It is a song which Menken and Ashman might well have written for Little Shop of Horrors. The royal sisters also shine on the entertaining "Daughters of Triton," an expanded version of the film song which, in the film, serves to introduce the Mersisters and is usually not remembered with the six other film songs. The estimable ensemble cast brings does full justice to the entire score.

The dynamite performance of Liz McCartney (Ursula) is bolstered by Scott Leiendecker (Flotsam) and Sean Patrick Doyle (Jetsam). Thanks to the restoration of "Daddy's Little Angel," in which Ursula describes how she became Neptune's favorite daughter, we do not have to wait until nearly the end of the first act to enjoy a delightfully sardonic musical turn from the trio. That song makes for a fine introduction, but little can top the knockout sequence where Flotsam and Jetsam bring Ariel to Ursula. Here, McCartney brings down the house inveigling Ariel to risk her soul and barter away her voice with the wickedly enticing "Poor Unfortunate Soul."

Alan Mingo, Jr. (Sebastian), who must be the most elegantly costumed crab in theatre history, scores with his strong, idiosyncratic versions of the Caribbean inflected Mermaid classics "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." His performance of "Under the Sea" combines with the imaginatively colorful costumes for the sea creatures, the energetic choreography of John MacInnis, the flashy lighting of Charlie Morrison, and the Calypso beat of Danny Troob's musical arrangements to recreate all the joy and excitement of a Caribbean carnival.

Jessica Grovι is a sweet, conventional Ariel whose lovely voice and hopeful sincerity are likely what Casale had in mind for the role. "Part of Your World" is stunning and secure in her hands. I think that the talented Ms. Grovι (you may remember seeing her as F. Scott Fitzgerald's first love in Peter Mills' The Pursuit of Persephone at the Prospect Theatre Company) would add more verve to Ariel if she were encouraged to bring touches of her own personality to the role.

Nick Adams (Prince Eric) brings a boyish enthusiasm and a high level of likeability to his Eric while displaying an easygoing confidence and sense of entitlement which effectively convince us of his royal status. His singing is strong and his pitch-perfect voice falls most pleasingly on the ears. Edward Watts (King Triton) provides a strong paternal presence and a powerful baritone.

Matt Allen as Scuttle, Ariel's quizzical seagull pal, is endearing despite having to do a yeoman's amount of flying and hovering. It certainly does not prevent him from delightfully singing and dancing his way through "Positoovity." Ron Wisniski is a pleasantly affable Grimsby. Timothy Shew (Chef Louis and Ship's Pilot) and Christian Probst (Flounder) each provide fine musical and comic turns.

Another pleasure of this production of The Little Mermaid is that it manages to be a cornucopia of comedy without ever diminishing or dismissing the emotional arc of the Hans Christian Andersen tale. As Sebastian observes to a Triton worried about his daughter Ariel's heedlessness, "You give them money and they swim all over you."

Almost all of the myriad pleasures in this tuner were completely obfuscated by the original Broadway production. I cannot join the chorus which dismisses that production as being on the level of a theme park show as it did not approach the quality of any number of tab shows that I have seen at Disney World. I could discuss the short falls of that production at great length (the enclosed Plexiglas set, obtrusive oversized foam costumes, the whole cast rolling across the stage on skates) but the only purpose would be to illustrate what an improved experience this production offers. Suffice it to say that, if you are hesitant to see this version because of anything that you saw, heard or read about the original Broadway production, you are in for a very pleasant surprise.

This new, eye opening The Little Mermaid has its genesis in the revised production which opened in the Netherlands in May 2012 directed by Glenn Casale with sets designed by Bob Crowley. That production was the basis for productions in Russia and, more recently, Japan. Casale is the director again here at Paper Mill. However, the set design for this production is Kenneth Foy. Based on photographs from the Dutch production, the current physical production appears to be lighter and more efficacious. Several modifications in the book (Ursula is now King Triton's sister, restoring plot and character material which was dropped from the animated film), the reordering of some scenes and songs, and the addition of a new song for Ursula, Flotsam and Jetsam (which was written for, then cut, from the Broadway production) surely have added to the new found stage success of The Little Mermaid.

It should certainly be noted that the book for the stage was written by distinguished American playwright Doug Wright.

If you are a fan of large scale, well crafted traditional American musicals, you will find great pleasure and satisfaction in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the newly revised stage musical version of Disney's The Little Mermaid. If the kids want to come with you, and you have the disposable income to take them, that would be nice, too.

(Four-year-old Mia is the reviewer's granddaughter.)

Disney's The Little Mermaid continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday through Sunday 7 PM/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 PM except for Wednesday 6/26; on that date at 4 PM Special Autism-Friendly Performance) through June 30, 2013. at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

Disney's The Little Mermaid Music by Alan Menken/ Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater/ Book by Doug Wright; Directed by Glenn Casale

Cast
Ariel………………………………………Jessica Grovι
Pilot/Chef Louis…………………………Timothy Shew
Prince Eric…………………………………Nick Adams
Grimsby……………………………………Ron Wisniski
Flounder………………………………Christian Probst
Scuttle…………………………………………Matt Allen
King Triton………………………………Edward Watts
Sebastian………………………………Alan Mingo, Jr.
Mersisters…………….Kristine Bennett, Lisa Karlin
…………..Nicole Javanna Johnson, Morgan Kirner
………………Erica Mansfield, Jessica Wockenfuss
Flotsam…………………………….Scott Leiendecker
Jetsam…………………………….Sean Patrick Doyle
Ursula…………………………………...Liz McCartney
Gulls…………...K.C. Fredericks, Dennis O'Bannion
………………………………………………Robbie Roby
Add'l. Ensemble..Ward Billeisen, Lauryn Ciardullo
…………………………….Thay Floyd, Rod Harrelson

The Paper Mill Disney's The Little Mermaid is produced in association with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Operaand the Kansas City Starlight Theatre.


Photo: Billy Bustamante


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- Bob Rendell



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