Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Disney's The Little Mermaid
Arizona Broadway Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of One Man, Two Guvnors, The Wizard of Oz and Puppet Wars: A Few Hope

Cassandra Norville Klaphake
The 1989 Walt Disney film The Little Mermaid is often credited for putting Disney's animation division back on the map after decades of unsuccessful animated film releases. But it wasn't just the story and animation that made the film a hit; most of the success could be attributed to the infectious Oscar winning score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. In Janet Maslin's New York Times review of the movie she commented that any Broadway musical would be lucky to include any of the excellent, showstopping songs from the film, with music by Menken and lyrics by Ashman. After Disney's success in bringing both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King to the stage, it only seemed natural that the movie that turned Disney's animation division around would be adapted as well, and it bowed on Broadway 2008. Arizona Broadway Theatre is presenting the Arizona professional premiere of the musical in a big, splashy, colorful production with a talented cast and impressive creative elements.

Based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic story, 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 Ariel's father King Triton learns of her desires, he tells her that humans killed her mother and contact with them is forbidden. But 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. 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; otherwise, her soul will forever belong to Ursula.

While The Little Mermaid only ran a little over a year and a half on Broadway, and wasn't considered a success, it includes all of the toe-tapping film songs plus about ten new ones, with lyrics for the new songs by Glenn Slater, some of which are quite good. Only a couple of the new ones are as infectious as the film's hit songs "Under the Sea" and "Part of Your World," and a few tend to add unnecessary sequences that only end up making the show longer than it needs to be. Still, there is a cute new number for Ariel's fish friend Flounder to sing with her sisters, "She's In Love," plus a new upbeat number for Ursula, and even a charming quartet, "If Only," all of which are in the same style of the original film score.

ABT's production is a family focused one, with director Kiel Klaphake joined by his wife Cassandra Norville Klaphake as Ursula and their two sons (along with two other boys) alternating in the role of Flounder. All do well with their respective contributions, especially Cassandra, seems to relish with glee the part of the evil witch with the evil ways. Her big, brassy, and powerful voice knocks Ursula's songs to the back of the auditorium and beyond. She's having a blast playing this part and the audience on opening night appeared to have just as much fun watching her.

As Ariel, Jill-Christine Wiley is very good, giving the part lovely shades of wonder, confusion, and excitement which combine to make Ariel's level of fascination with the human world realistic. She also has a lovely voice, adding plenty of warmth to her songs. Patton Chandler makes Eric a very likable man, so it's easy to see why Ariel is so enamored by him. Chandler's creamy voice brings a lush, romantic sound to his solo song "Her Voice." Mark DiConzo has the right amount of tough parental love and concern as King Triton and, like the rest of the cast, has an excellent voice. It's a shame that none of the new songs written for the stage adaptation allow DiConzo to really show off his skills, though his part in the quartet "If Only" is quite moving. Aaron Ronelle is a joy as the crab Sebastian, who leads two of the biggest hits from the film, "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," and helps make them incredible showstoppers. Ronelle also has great comic timing. In a few smaller parts, Tim Shawver, Gerard Lanzerotti, and Greg Kalafatas all provide some nice humorous touches.

Klaphake's direction allows for the fun, bright, and comical moments to be enjoyable, yet also allows for the more serious parts of the musical that deal with parental fears of losing their child to have resonance. He also never lets the more dark moments in the show that deal with Ursula ever approach true evil, making the show very family friendly. Kurtis W. Overby's choreography never stops in providing varied and inventive movement, creating numerous showstoppers, several of which include about a dozen youth ensemble members. Creative elements are full of color, including Vincent Scassellati, Kenneth Burrell, and Robin L. McGee's beautiful costume designs, which include some stunning Day-Glo fish designs for "Under the Sea." Paul A. Black's set and lighting designs feature lovely coral reefs and also multiple shades of aquamarine, which combine to portray magical and beautiful underwater imagery. While the many elaborate special effects in the film, which include swimming, a shipwreck and magical transformations, can't quite be fully recreated onstage, Klaphake and his team do the best they can, including using some flying effects by Zfx, Inc. to give the illusion of swimming as well as a nifty transformation for Ariel. Mark 4Man's music direction, as usual, is excellent, providing both lush harmonies from the large ensemble and a rich, full sound from the orchestra.

While the stage version of The Little Mermaid is a fairly by the numbers re-telling of the animated film, and some of the new songs written for the stage version pale in comparison to the film songs, it is still a fun, engaging show. With a powerhouse comical performance from Norville Klaphake as Ursula and a sweet and engaging one from Wiley as Ariel, and featuring clear direction and colorful, imaginative creative designs, the Arizona Broadway Theatre production is a family friendly gem.

Disney's The Little Mermaid runs through June 21st, 2015, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623 776-8400.

Stage Direction by Kiel Klaphake
Music Direction: Mark 4Man
Choreography: Kurtis W. Overby
Scenic Design: Paul A. Black
Costume Design: Vincent Scassellati & Kenneth Burrell
Additional Costume Design: Robin L McGee
Lighting Design: Paul A. Black
Sound Design: Eric Johnson
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake
Stage Management: Jenissa Yauney

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Pilot: Greg Kalafatas
Prince Eric: Patton Chandler
Grimsby: Tim Shawver
King Triton: Mark DiConzo*
Sebastian: Aaron Ronelle
Ariel: Jill-Christine Wiley
Flounder: Vincent Jacovo, Kieran Klaphake, Tristan Klaphake< T.J. Rossi+
Scuttle: Gerard Lanzerotti
Gulls: John Cardenas, Carly Grossman, Renee Kathleen Koher
Ursula: Cassandra Norville Klaphake
Flotsam: Tyler J. Gasper
Jetsam: Joey Anchondo
Carlotta: Laurie Trygg
Chef Louis: Greg Kalafatas
Ensemble: John Cardenas, E.J. Dohring, Joel Duke, Kevin Ferguson, Lynzee Jaye Paul 4Man, Carly Grossman, Greg Kalafatas, Renee Kathleen Koher, Nicholas Kuhn, Patti-Lee Meringo, Chelsea Soto, Laurie Trygg, Gabriella Whiting
Youth Ensemble: Emma Domakeczna, Serenity Starr Foreman, Anna Koth, Caelan Koth, Makayla Kovac, Makena Melara, Michaela Melara, Calista Quint, Jacob Shipley, Abbey Spanko, Delaney Spanko

*Member Actors' Equity Association

+ Shared role

Photo: Arizona Broadway Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix