Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Little Mermaid (The SOB Review)

The Little Mermaid (The SOB Review) - Ellie Caulkins Opera House, The Denver Center for Performing Arts, Denver, CO

**1/2 (out of ****)

When its entire considerable empire and reputation is built on magic (heck, even one of its cruise ships has been so christened), it's expected that everything bearing Disney's name will have a deft magic touch. But in The Little Mermaid, Disney has allowed its good name to go adrift.

When George Tsypin's set designs of everything from an underwater kingdom to ships sailing above to an earthly palace all resemble garishly cheap plastic pieces from a My Little Pony revue, or when Tatiana Noginova's costume designs look like Julie Taymor rejects, or when Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's derivative tunes sound more like a bizarre hybrid of Cabaret and The Lion King, The Little Mermaid swims into decidedly unenchanted waters.

Much has been made of director Francesca Zambello's misguided decision to forego much of magic and for good reason. Instead of using either water or wires, she clearly chose to rely on the score, book and performances to capture the audiences' attention. But this is Disney, isn't it?!

Here it must be noted that while the score was surprisingly lame (case in point: "Positoovity" comes off sounding more like a rip-off of "Hakuna Matata") with most of the high points coming directly from the original film score by Menken and Howard Ashman, Doug Wright's book at least propels the story into greater depths. He explores Ariel's choices and empowers her via a brave emancipation from her overprotective father. Yet there's not enough of the trademark Disney dual-edged wink and nod humor to keep it interesting for the adults. And I'm still baffled by how some of the sea creatures could be next of kin.

More importantly, the cast headed by a sweet Sierra Boggess as Ariel the mermaid and a formidably fun Sherie René Scott as the wicked Ursula is what provides the production its true iridescence. Thankfully, there's plenty of heart here.

Other standouts include a charming Sean Palmer as Prince Eric, a chiseled Norm Lewis as Ariel's father King Triton and audience favorite Titus Burgess as Sebastian the crab. There's also a breakout star in the making as the young J.J. Singleton steals key moments of the show as Flounder. But as Flotsam, Disney and Altar Boyz fave Tyler Maynard can't seem to shake the stereotypically fey roles he's perfected.

As much as most of those performances enhanced the show, along with Stephen Mear's zippy choreography (courtesy of Heelys), The Little Mermaid is unfortunately bereft of one major essential element: Disney magic. When Aida proves more interesting in the enchantment department, Zambello appears to be in over her head.

And while my Denver audience cheered enthusiastically once the would-be spectacle was over -- no doubt largely due to the top drawer cast, I can't help but believe New York audiences will leave disappointed unless Zambello seriously rethinks how to deliver the goods most Disney fans expect and demand. I know I did.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Is Little Mermaid Major Disney Misstep?(August 31, 2007)
Updated: One Rocky Review For The Little Mermaid; One Favorable Post (August 24, 2007)
A Tale Of Two Tryout Cities (August 23, 2007)
Little Mermaid Begins Tonight (July 26, 2007)
Little Mermaid: No Treading Water Before The Boards (July 21, 2007)
Mermaid Casting Anything But Little (March 20, 2007)
Beauty Out On Broadway (January 17, 2007)
Disney Moves from Continent to Continent (May 22, 2006)

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