Photo by Joan Marcus
Sierra Boggess as Ariel in Broadway adaptation of “The Little Mermaid”
Under the sea, but not entirely soggy
THE LITTLE MERMAID
Book by Doug Wright
Music by Alan Mencken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater
Directed by Francesca Zambello
205 W. 46th St.
By Scott Harrah
Anyone expecting a highbrow adaptation of a Disney film like Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” will be disappointed with the colorful mess that is “The Little Mermaid,” but it is not nearly as bad as some of the buzz has claimed. The show has been receiving negative press ever since it started previewing out of town in Denver last year, but it is never as tepid as the ill-fated 2006 Disney adaptation of “Tarzan,” and it is actually more fun for children than the current revival of “Mary Poppins.”
Disney hasn’t truly been able to reinvent its blockbuster-animated features for the Broadway stage in more than a decade, and for good reason. Cartoon characters and live humans fused with show tunes is a tricky, difficult mix for the stage because it’s simply impossible to recreate the magic of animated films for live theater. It worked in “Beauty and the Beast” because a “spell” had been cast on inanimate objects like teacups, but how does one create a believable on-stage sea of marine creatures and a land-locked human prince and European royalty without everything coming off a bit cheesy? Director Francesca Zambello and an army of Disney scene and costume mavens certainly try here, but one knows one is in for a questionable evening of theater after entering the Lunt-Fontanne and seeing the stage draped in a black backdrop of seashells and marine life that looks like a shower curtain. The opening number, “Fathoms Below,” featuring sailors singing on a ship sailing on a plastic sea, isn’t promising, but fortunately the show and its scenery get better. By the second song, “Daughters of Triton” showcasing the sassy “Mersisters” and their beloved sibling, the star of the show Ariel (the winsome Sierra Boggess) Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid” starts showing some of the imaginative charm of the animated film.
The show is the exact same story as the movie: a mermaid longs to become human in order to be with the man she loves, Prince Eric (Sean Palmer), so she is forced to make a dirty deal with her wicked, evil sea-witch aunt Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott, in an over-the-top, delightfully camp performance). Ariel’s pals, such as the crab Sebastian (the effervescent Tituss Burgess), are all here. Like the movie, “The Little Mermaid” is not nearly as dark as the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and it features a multicultural cast to make everything seem relevant by 21st century standards.
Alan Mencken, Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater’s great songs are in the show, but the book, by the award-winning Doug Wright (the man behind such recent hits as “I Am My Own Wife” and “Grey Gardens”), lacks any truly memorable dialogue. Musically, however, there are some standouts, most notably the show-stopping “Under the Sea,” the song from the movie that won an Oscar. Unfortunately, Disney has taken an 83-minute movie and padded it out into a musical that’s more than two hours with an intermission. The three new songs added, “She’s in Love,” “Positoovity,” and “If Only,” are cute yet never live up to the simplistic brilliance of “Under the Sea.”
To make the sea come to life on stage, Disney has added a few high-tech touches such as having cast members float around on “wheelies,” skate-like shoes with wheels, but the uniqueness of this special effect wears thin after a while, and obviously not much could be done about the visible wire as Ariel swims to the surface of the ocean. Set designer George Tsypin, choreographer Stephen Mear, and costumer designer Tatiana Noginova all do an ambitious job of trying to flesh out everything from the animated film, but the glitzy sets and elaborate costumes do not always conceal the fact that this adaptation sometimes loses thematic focus and could stand to be 30 minutes shorter, since this is, after all, a show geared toward pleasing the short attention spans of children.