Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 10, 2008
The Little Mermaid Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Book by Doug Wright. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story and the Disney film produced by Howard Ashman & John Musker and written & directed by John Musker & Ron Clements. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Choreography by Stephen Mear. Music director, incidental music & vocal arrangements by Michael Kosarin. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Scenic design by George Tsypin. Costume design by Tatiana Noginova. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by John Shivers. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone. Projection & video design by Sven Ortel. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Music coordination by Michael Keller. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Starring Sierra Boggess, Sean Palmer, Norm Lewis, Tituss Burgess, Eddie Korbich, Jonathan Freeman, Derrick Baskin, Tyler Maynard, Trevor Braun, Brian D’Addario, Cody Hanford, J.J. Singleton, and Sherie Rene Scott. Adrian Bailey, Cathryn Basile, Heidi Blickenstaff, James Brown III, Robert Creighton, Cicily Daniels, John Treacy Egan, Tim Federle, Merwin Foard, Ben Harley, Meredith Inglesby, Michelle Lookadoor, Joanne Manning, Alan Mingo, Jr., Zakiya Young Mizen, Betsy Morgan, Arbender J. Robinson, Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, Bret Shuford, Jason Snow, Chelsea Morgan Stock, Kay Trinidad, Price Waldman, Daniel J. Watts.
The performer is Tituss Burgess, who as the crab Sebastian marshals an admirable amount of dignity singing the praises of an ocean and its inhabitants that at their best look like an HDTV demonstration at the local Circuit City. Acres of webbed tights swathing the actors, the gleaming silver of rotating set pieces that indicate motion without achieving actual kineticism, and several hundred pre-painted waves on the backdrop give the number the effortful feel of manufactured fun designed to be easy to tour.
"Under the Sea" remains the smile-inducing charmer it was in the 1989 animated film, with its insinuating Caribbean beat from composer Alan Menken and intricate sealife-affirming lyrics from the late Howard Ashman, even if it - like the rest of the production - is covering up a severe case of the bends. As directed by Francesca Zambello, choreographed by Stephen Mear, and designed by George Tsypin (sets), Tatiana Noginova (costumes), and Natasha Katz (lights), the only concept this Little Mermaid seems to promote is about producing audience-friendly musicals on the cheap.
This isn't to say that Zambello and company don't hit on some visually satisfying moments, if only by the law of averages. There are times that the arrangements of actors and set pieces recall nautical maps and Renaissance oil paintings, giving the show a suavely stylistic sense of time and place. And despite the bargain-basement look of actors rolling around on Heely-like shoes to simulate swimming, it gives the undersea scenes a fervently fluid look that doesn't waterspout you back to the surface. This is unquestionably the prettiest ugly show in town.
What's missing is any sense of the kind of magic and wonder that the better Disney stage shows trade on, and even lesser Disney animated films can manage in spades. There are no anthropomorphic candlesticks with burning hands or gravity-defying transformations a la Beauty and the Beast; and Zambello hasn't found a way to stage the film's unstageable moments (such as a terrifying storm or a fraught confrontation between a ship and a skyscraping octopus) with the go-for-broke creativity Julie Taymor brought to the Broadway version of The Lion King.
This is sufficient to send The Little Mermaid swimming circles around the other Disney stage ventures Aida, Tarzan, and Mary Poppins in terms of general attractiveness and appropriateness, if it's never enough to make it a good show. The book by Tony winner Doug Wright and the new songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater gently expand the original story without ever improving it, give it more laughs and more music without ever making it funnier or more tuneful.
What hasn't accompanied them across the celluloid are the personality and authority the original voice actors brought to their roles - the actors' line readings suggest that Zambello wanted them as big and as stake-free as possible. This results in oddities like Scott's Ursula, no longer a threatening mistress of the dark arts, but rather a daffily friendly, Hollywood-obsessed aunt who looks like Phyllis Diller being electrocuted on a bad hair day. (Her new number, "I Want the Good Times Back," is Norma Desmond Lite.) Or Lewis's Triton: The commanding actor can usually be counted on for at least a few stentorian pleasures, but here recites his every declamatory line as though he's an overworked graduated student buzzing in the pizza delivery guy. Palmer impresses as every bit the traditional Disney hero: handsome, well-sung, and abrasively two-dimensional.
The rest of the company has not been afforded the same courtesy, leaving them awash in a tentative security that ensures you're never carried away. After the critical, popular, and artistic flop that was Tarzan, one can't blame Disney for wanting to play it safe this time around, which is a particular shame given that the message of The Little Mermaid is that life-threatening chances are sometimes well worth taking.