The Little Mermaid

Jessica Grové, Liz McCartney, Sean Patrick Doyle and Alan Mingo, Jr.
Photo by Billy Bustamante
Staging a musical that takes place (at least half of the time) underwater has to be a challenge. Disney's first attempt, The Little Mermaid on Broadway, was not very successful. The criticism centered mostly on the staging—all that water, and things swimming through it. The score, at least the new songs (songs by by Alan Menken Howard Ashman written for the extremely popular 1989 animated film were augmented by songs by Menken and Alan Menken and Glenn Slater), got a mixed reception. Instead of sending the musical out on tour from Broadway, thought and effort was given to fixing some of the weaker elements in a collaboration of Pittsburgh CLO, Paper Mill Playhouse and Kansas City Starlight Theatre. This is a mini summer tour with new creative team members Glenn Casale (director), Kenneth Foy (scenic design), John MacInnis (choreography), Amy Clark and Mark Koss (costume design). With their contributions and some tweaking of the score, this is a very well-produced production that would be the highlight of any CLO season.

Doug Wright's book follows rebellious teen mermaid Ariel (Jessica Grové) who wants to walk on land and is given the opportunity to do so through a devilish deal made with the sea witch (and aunt?) Ursula (Liz McCartney). Ariel is surrounded by six Mersisters, friends Flounder (Christian Probst) and Sebastian (Alan Mingo, Jr.), and father King Triton (Edward Watts), who eventually yields to the independence of the strong-willed daughter he loves very much. The young mermaid's love interest is Prince Eric (Nick Adams). Ursula has her own sidekicks Flotsam (Scott Leiendecker) and Jetsam (Sean Patrick Doyle), and there are other assorted sea creatures and land lubbers for musical and comedic support. Timothy Shew is a pip as Chef Louis. If you're familiar with the film, you already know the plot, a lot of the characters, dialogue and songs—but some details are different.

The entire production has a very bright and colorful cartoon look. The undersea scenes are enhanced by lighting and projections, and the actors on wires mimic the movements of fish and other sea life (to be blunt, they undulate and swish their fabric fins—but it's much more successful than that sounds). Flounder uses a skateboard, and Flotsam and Jetsam use "Heelys" style shoes (which is very effective in that limited use). Clark and Koss' costumes are top notch, especially for King Triton, Ursula and her pals.

The cast is talented, accomplished and successful in presenting these comic book-like characters. The typical Disney heroine and hero Ariel and (especially) Prince Eric are written and directed to be so cartoonish, Grovéé and Adams are hamstrung in "humanizing" either one, though both have stellar voices. I expected the character of Flounder to participate more in the story, but he is barely here (in the movie and in the Broadway version, I believe he was played as a child, but Probst is a college student and seems too tall to be taking that approach). Mingo gives a rip-roaring crowd-pleasing performance as Sebastian, one of the few roles that offers an opportunity to make a mark. Watts is a stunning King Triton and it's a shame he doesn't have an opportunity to do more singing here.

The juiciest role is Ursula, and Liz McCartney is in full out revengeful sea-bitch mode. She is constantly developing the character—loud and brassy and broad when called for, but even when in repose ("treading water"), she's working the performance, creepily caressing her fat tentacles and gazing with a demonic expression. A lot of the the special effects are focused on her and they are very effective (a young audience member shared my opinion vocally during the scene of Ursula's flashy demise).

I don't know if this is being prepared for a national tour or if it will appear in other regional areas, but it's a visual and aural feast, and we're lucky to have it here this summer.

The Little Mermaid continues at the Benedum Center through July 21 (then July 23-28 in Kansas City). For more information, call 412-456-6666 or visit

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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