The Pittsburgh CLO & Kansas City Starlight’s Production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid directed by Glenn Castle brought to life the animated 1989 classic fairytale with a bright, bubbly, colorful underwater transformation this past weekend to Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
After careful thought and consideration, I decided it would be appropriate to bring along my 10 year old cousin, Grace. What a better way to spend some quality time with her and get an honest young girl’s opinion, after all children tend to be pretty honest. On the ride downtown, Grace revealed to me two things. 1) It was the first time that she ever wore heels 2) She never saw the 1989 Disney’s film, The Little Mermaid. A wave of excitement came over me, not only to experience this favorite mermaid fairytale with her, but also sharing the memory of her first time walking in heels to the theatre.
As an avid mermaid admirer that grew up in the late 80’s, it is safe to say I have seen the movie more times than I can count.
The audience was filled with a sea of enthusiastic young girls, and covered many generations of women ready to revisit the timeless classic, Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I was more than curious and excited to see how the underwater musical would translate from the 1989 childhood film. As an avid mermaid admirer that grew up in the late 80’s, it is safe to say I have seen the movie more times than I can count. I also must confess, it was my favorite Disney movie. As a child, I even played Sebastian (the crab) in our 6th grade grammar school play and danced to “Under The Sea”, which was choreographed by my none other than, my mom. The performance was a moment in time that I will never forget; wearing a bright red unitard with a hood and multiple claws strung together that all moved as one. It was embarrassing and amazing all at the same time. I was ready to relive the beloved fairytale tonight and so the story begins.
The voyage begins when Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) is stranded ashore, delivered upon his misfit mermaid, Ariel (Diana Huey) after a storm at sea. Ariel falls in love with Prince Eric and desires to become a human. Her father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard) forbids her to visit the surface again but rebellious mermaid Ariel strikes a deal with the evil seawitch, Ursula (Jennifer Allen) to meet her prince. The story line compared to the original movie explored some more in depth back stories, plot twists and also 15 new pieces of music including, ‘Daddy’s Little Angel’, ‘She’s in Love’ and ‘Beyond my Wildest Dreams’ to name just a few.
Diana Huey (Ariel) the youngest of the mersisters, captures the innocence of the child-like character and brings a big voice to the stage.
Diana Huey (Ariel) the youngest of the mersisters, captures the innocence of the child-like character and brings a big voice to the stage. She gave a strong performance with “Part of your World” and her voice was reminiscent of the original 1989 version by Jodi Benson written by Alan Menken. After reading more about Huey, I unfortunately discovered some controversy regarding her being cast as the lead role because of her Asian American ethnicity. After a visit to her Facebook page, I was happy to read a lot of outpouring support from her fans and her response stating, “ I am so proud to be a part of this company and I am so proud to be an Asian-American artist. I didn’t by any means set out to be the face or voice of anything-but I am humbled to be fighting for a more loving and equal place in the arts and in this community”. I don’t believe that race should be considered as a factor in the casting – I find her journey inspiring, silencing naysayers. However I did ponder if the part could have been better selected in terms of height, as I do remember Ariel to appear a bit taller in relationship to Prince Eric and her mersisters. Huey gave a heartfelt performance, but her presence was a bit underwhelming at times and she seemed to drown in heavy stage sets, even while suspended and floating through the deep sea.
Eric Kunze’s (Prince Eric) performance lacked passion and I didn’t feel the chemistry between Diana Huey and lead role prince. It was most apparent and uncomfortable in the dancing duet, “One Step Closer” and “Kiss the Girl”.
Broadway veterans; Steve Blanchard (King Triton), Melvin Abston (Sebastian) Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) played strong lead roles and consistently kept my attention throughout the performance. Maybe I am just partial to the beloved crab, but his performances included some of my favorites for the night, including “Under The Sea” and “Le Poissons”.
“Under The Sea” was an upbeat jazzy number complete with Vegas style headpieces and dancing mer-ladies high kicking, spinning and jumping about the reef. The execution of the many moving parts brought excitement and kept my eyes moving from flying fishy props to rolling seashells. Hearing and seeing the children around me laughing, clapping and screaming was a nice reminiscent moment and reminder how much the children were enjoying the show.
‘She’s in Love’, featuring Flounder and the mersisters, had a fun, flirty 1960’s vibe to it and I even spotted some Fosse inspiration.
“She’s in Love”, featuring Flounder and the mersisters, had a fun, flirty 1960’s vibe to it and I even spotted some Fosse inspiration. The mersisters had a nice synergy, and the bond was present among the group. Connor Russell (Flounder) did a nice job helping to narrate the story, I didn’t feel the plot twist of Flounder having a crush on Ariel came through as believable.
“Les Poissons”, sung by Dane Stokinger, offered up a comical and wild dinner scene, bringing the audience much laughter. My guest, Grace told me (after the show) that this was her favorite part of the evening. The creative use of the dining table with silly chefs acrobatically swinging in and out was exciting and unpredictable! Another unexpected surprise of the evening was Scuttle and his Gulls’ tap dancing quartet in “Positoovity”. These softshoeing segals flocked around the stage bringing smiles to the audience. I perched up a little taller to watch their entertaining tap number!
The sets and lighting design looked magical and extravagant and as a whole kept the eyes busy with many moving parts floating and rolling about. The light-filled theatre made us feel encapsulated underwater. In this underwater sea of sparkly greens and blues, the costumes dazzled with an array of sequins, feathers and even bubble-dresses that resembled sponges. The costumes seemed to build from a simple colorful unitard, by adding layers of flowing fabrics down to the fins. They looked very heavy to dance and swim around in. The continual undulating movements of the actors bodies while underwater, and manipulation of the fabric, created a sense of waves – the commitment to the movement was impressive. It looked as if second nature. I even found myself adopting the movement style and swimming around my home later that night! My favorite costumes of the night were the bright green light-up roller eels worn by Flotsam and Jetsam. The spikey-haired dynamic duo gave a strong electric performance as they viciously rolled around on their Heelys (roller sneakers) as sidekicks to Jennifer Allen (Ursula). Ursula’s costume was frighteningly beautiful with massive 9 inch hair, but her performance lacked commitment. I didn’t feel she commanded the role enough and was believable or evil.
As a whole, I thought the show was a beautiful and magical, for a young child. Grace and I found the first act to be less engaging and underwhelming than the second act. It had a lot of quirky comedic parts to it, including many (many) puns that sometimes took it a little too far and became awkwardly corny. Translating a musical onto a stage is a difficult task. It was apparent for this production. When a musical exists previously as a movie, it creates a sense of expectation that may not be seemingly possible for the stage or theatre. Although I enjoyed the evening for many other reasons, I felt that it never fully launched on all of its flippers.