I'm a huge fan of The Little Mermaid, the 1989 film widely heralded as the beginning of Disney's Second Renaissance in animation. Saying I'm a huge fan is probably an understatement, considering it is my favorite film of all time, and has remained so for nearly 20 years now. I've always felt that the film had some of the most natural songs of all. In other words, the music flowed very organically from the plot and characters. I love Beauty and the Beast, but most townspeople don't run around singing every morning. My excitement when the announcement was made that it would be coming to Broadway as a musical adaptation wasn't at all surprising. So, at first opportunity, I got my ticket.
The musical begins as the film does, with the song "Fathoms Below," with some new lyrics added and minor changes made. The staging of Prince Eric's ship on the water is incredibly well done. This set piece hangs in the center of the stage, while waves made of some sort of glass or plastic stir about. When the song is done, the ship moves upward on those "waves", and disappears, leaving us with a gentle blue lighting scheme, and our introduction to the undersea world. The song here is "Daughters of Triton," also extended with some new lyrics, and it is the first time we meet King Triton (Norm Lewis), Sebastian, and Ariel's six elder sisters. This is also the scene in which I first felt weird about the production. when coming onto the scene for the number, aside from Lewis, the actors were skating.
My first thought was that it looked like something out of Disney on Ice. And they continued to skate, to simulate the gliding motion of swimming. In fact, everyone who plays an underwater denizen in this musical, with the exception of Sherie René Scott, who plays Ursula, skates. It's very weird at first, but after a few moments, the fluidity of the whole thing grabs hold. Though sometimes now and then you notice that they're skating again. What ran through my head at the time was that this show would never have been possible if Heelys were not invented.
Going in, I'd read only that the show had mixed reviews, but I hadn't read up too much on the production design, because I wanted the experience to be as fresh as possible for me. I didn't know about the skating beforehand, and so it was a bit jarring. What I'd expected was more harness work (which the show does include), but as I mentioned, eventually the whole skating thing melts away for the most part.
The costumes were the first thing I noticed after the skating, and they are delightful. They require one to suspend disbelief to some degree when it comes to tails and Sebastian's crab limbs, but somehow, it all just works beautifully. They are inspired and whimsical. The only costume I had a problem with was Flounder's. They didn't seem to know what to do with him, placing the young actor in a yellow t-shirt with blue spots on it, yellow shorts, bright yellow Heelys, topping it off with his hair sprayed blue.
Anyhow, after the "Daughters of Triton" scene, we are finally introduced to Ariel (Sierra Boggess) in a new song, "The World Above". And what a perfect Ariel she is, from the look down to the voice, she makes this role all her own. Her acting, gestures, and vocal tone are all flawless. Her signature song, "Part of Your World", is turned into a stripped down, much more subtle affair than its film counterpart. She is alone in this staging, and she carries it beautifully, with sparkling emotion and power. She's really quite the discovery.
This production makes sure to give every character his or her time to shine. Ursula, who already has "Poor Unfortunate Souls" to belt out deviously, gets a new showstopper, the campy "I Want the Good Times Back", in which Sherie René Scott chews scenery with the best of them. Her characterization and strong voice seize control and she steals every moment she's on the stage. I particularly loved how she brought a real freshness and originality to her role. It would have been an easy path and a big mistake to attempt to imitate Pat Carroll's style. This Ursula is a little bit Noo Yawk, a little bit Vegas showgirl. My only minor quibble with her performance was that it was a bit too brief. The way she meets her end leaves her nowhere near as threatening or evil as she could have been. The Vanessa subplot from the movie was scrapped (unnecessarily), and she never turns into a larger than life scary villain.
Instead, Scuttle gets several songs. I like that they let him have some extra time (and Eddie Korbich is very good), but the silly song "Positoovity" could have been scrapped for more substantial things, like extended Ursula time. There is also an inexplicable reprise of "Under the Sea" right after the song itself finishes. This feels like a weird type of padding. That song is supposed to end suddenly, and Sebastian is to notice Ariel is gone. Instead, he just remains oblivious while they tread through more song and dance for another minute or two. Pacing fails a bit here, and that time could have been spent in a much better way. The later "Les Poissons (Reprise)" is handled much better and actually serves to move the plot along.
However, Prince Eric (Sean Palmer) gets two absolutely lovely numbers. "Her Voice", whose melody is partly based on "Part of Your World", and "One Step Closer", whose melody is based upon the film's instrumental track "Jig", originally used in the party ship scene. Little touches like these being included made the film fan in me fall even more in love with this production. Other peripheral characters like Flotsam and Jetsam even get a song, and the happy, Motown-esque "She's in Love" showcases Ariel's sisters and Flounder in a fun extension of a short scene from the film.
Of the new material, "Beyond My Wildest Dreams" is the highlight for me. It is sung by Sierra Boggess from the point of view of inside Ariel's mind after she's taken to Eric's castle after being rendered silent by Ursula's spell. The sheer childlike excitement of the lyrics, Boggess' performance, and the sweet, flighty vocals are a real form of magic. No wonder I've been listening to it constantly since the other night. "If Only" is a touching quartet, characteristic of classic Broadway, and it made me cry.
Overall, however, my excitement was not unwarranted. The acts are slightly uneven, but when everything works, it works incredibly well. There are some notable differences from my beloved film, but this is a beautiful one in its own way.