If you’ve seen this year’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, you know it tells the story of a mute woman doing everything she can to live happily ever after with an anthropomorphic fish creature. If you loved that film, you have probably wondered what the story would be like if the mute woman was recast as the fish now pursuing the love of a human.
Well, wonder no more! Pittsburgh Musical Theatre has endeavored to put your fan fiction-writing minds at ease with their exuberant if ultimately flat revival production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Long before Disney got its metaphorical and musical hooks into Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” to manufacture 2013’s Frozen, they adapted his original “The Little Mermaid” for the screen in 1989. Bolstered by Oscar-winning music by composer Alan Menken and the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman, the incredible success of The Little Mermaid ushered in the Mouse House’s first animation renaissance.
That renaissance begat more highly acclaimed films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King which begat highly acclaimed stage adaptations of those movies. Sadly, “highly acclaimed” are not two words anyone would use to describe Ariel’s New York outing.
The general verdict seemed to be that the directing and design departments did not realize the underwater scenes as elegantly as inanimate objects and wild animals were brought to life in those other shows.
This is why I really feel for PMT’s Executive Artistic Director Colleen Doyno, who also helms this …Mermaid. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Menken, new lyricist Glen Slater, and book writer Doug Wright, she is left up a creek and without a paddle with this material.
An onslaught of fish puns and plot holes bog down the simple story of Ariel (Larissa Overholt), the youngest of King Triton’s (Brady Patsy) seven daughters. She spends all her time at the ocean’s surface collecting artifacts of the human world with her lovesick friend Flounder (Benjamin Godley-Fisher at the performance I saw) and human stuff “expert” Scuttle (the always hilarious Joe York). Everything changes though when she lays eyes on the dashing Prince Eric (Dave Toole).
Ignoring advice from her father and her maestro Sebastian (the always exciting Tru Verret-Fleming), Ariel makes a deal with her evil aunt Ursula to trade her voice for the chance to be human and win Eric’s affection.
You can certainly guess how things end up, but what’s harder to picture is how to stage this aquatic fairy tale. Ms. Doyno has outfitted a few of her actors with roller shoes, or Heelys, to simulate swimming. It didn’t work for the show on Broadway in 2008, and it still doesn’t work now. The uneven start and stop gliding motion created by the roller shoes is reflected in the production’s overall momentum and comedic timing.
Heavy is the head that wears Ariel’s signature red wig whether it’s little girls and boys in the audience or Ms. Overholt on the Byham stage, returning the role she played in PMT’s 2015 production. While her wholesome performance is rather effortless, her vocals are generally strained. Her Ariel is bubbly but, naturally, shallow as a puddle.
Unfortunately, Mr. Toole is miscast as the human prince. With a powerful and captivating voice like his, he should really be the mermaid in this story. His renditions of the longing ballad “Her Voice” and Ariel and Eric’s adorable pas de deux “One Step Closer” are exquisite.
Although the story dictates that it is Ursula that steals Ariel’s voice, the sound equipment had other ideas at the performance I attended. But thanks to the swift intervention of the stage management team, Sandy Zwier rebounded tremendously after her microphone went out during the opening chords of Ursula’s truly heinous (in every sense of the word) song about familial genocide, “Daddy’s Little Angel”.
Honestly, having Ursula perform the show with a handheld mic beautifully plays up the inherent diva-style campiness of the character, and the deliciously diabolical Ms. Zwier plays that up to even greater effect.
Here she is flanked by Jerreme Rodriguez and Adam Fladd in the roles of Ursula’s electric eel henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam, respectively. Their synchronous, slithering full-bodied physicality make them the most convincing of the many ocean dwellers we’re introduced to.
Choreographer Lisa Elliot and Costume Designer Kim Brown make magic with this show’s hugely talented all-ages ensemble in the Act I showstopper “Under the Sea”. That number is the lively, technicolor benchmark you wish the rest of the show lived up to.
Disney is set to attempt the impossible again with an upcoming big screen, live action adaptation of The Little Mermaid with new songs by Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s definitely a tall order, but I think they’ll crack the code if they cast it spectacularly like Pittsburgh Musical Theatre did with their version.
But I implore them to get the characters feet/fins out of the roller shoes and keep them firmly planted on the ground… or the ocean floor as it were.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid plays at the Byham Theater through March 25th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos by Melissa Wallace
Categories: Archived Reviews