REVIEW: The Little Mermaid makes a great splash on Moonlight's stage
Review from San Diego Union Tribune
Fans of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” — and those who love musical theater in general — will not be disappointed with the live version of the beloved animated film that has splashed onto the Moonlight Amphitheatre stage in Vista.
From stellar performances — including a scene-stealing Ursula (Randall Hickman) — to gorgeous costumes, beautiful sets and fun ensemble dance numbers, everything those who enjoy live theater could want they will find in the production that runs in the outdoor venue through Aug. 5.
The stage version, which opened on Broadway in 2008, is based on Disney’s 1989 animated film that began the Disney Renaissance era. Both were inspired by the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name about a mermaid who longs to be human so she can win the heart of the human prince with whom she has fallen in love.
In all versions, the mermaid makes a pact with an evil sea witch, agreeing to trade her voice for legs for a few days, during which time she must win the prince or pay a horrible consequence. The complication is that the prince has not seen the mermaid, even though her beautiful singing has captured his heart, and the sea witch plays dirty when it comes to the mermaid achieving her happily ever after.
All of the film’s memorable songs by Alan Menken (music) and the late Howard Ashman (lyrics) — including “Kiss the Girl,” “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Les Poissons” — are there, as are most of the film’s scenes. Only slight changes have occurred on this front, but these provide great surprises for those familiar with the movie. One example is a fun, Disney-specific way the film’s Vanessa character and plot are replaced.
For those who wanted to know more about certain characters or desired a fuller-storyline, the musical does not disappoint. Additions include a backstory about Ariel’s late mother and opportunities created for supporting characters to shine, like the seagull Scuttle (Luke Harvey Jacobs), who has a bit of attitude and a great tap number with his fellow birds as they perform “Positoovity” to start Act II.
t is among several new songs written for the musical by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. Among the best are “If Only (Triton’s Lament)” sung by Moonlight newcomer Paul Oakley Stovall, who aptly portrays the inner turmoil Triton experiences.
Other new songs that let the voiceless human Ariel share her thoughts with the audience throughout most of Act II are “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” and “If Only (Quartet)” — the latter a song for Ariel (Moonlight newcomer Chassey Bennett), Prince Eric (David Burnham), Sebastian (Cornelius Jones, Jr.) and King Triton to sing, where each contemplates what is occurring near the show’s dramatic conclusion.
Bennett is lovely in the title role and, according to the program, Ariel was her favorite Disney princess as a child. She performs in beautiful fashion the wishful “Part of Your World” and channels the right mix of charm and head-strong stubbornness. Bennett’s portrayal captures every bit of what you would expect of a Disney princess.
Unlike the rather one-dimensionality Disney princes tend to have in the films, Burnham brings Eric to life wonderfully, especially through his solos — “Her Voice” in Act I and “One Step Closer” in Act II. He aptly expresses Eric’s inner conflict of pursuing a relationship with Ariel, who has attracted him through her charm and dancing, and the yet-undiscovered girl whose voice has won his heart.
Sebastian (Broadway veteran Cornelius Jones, Jr.) singing "Kiss the Girl" while Ariel (Chassey Bennett) and Prince Eric (Broadway veteran David Burnham) go on a romantic boat ride. (Ken Jacques Photography)
Burnham, who played Fiyero in “Wicked” on Broadway (he also originated it in the musical’s workshops) and was in the original Broadway cast of “The Light in the Piazza” is one of two Broadway veterans in the cast. The other is Jones, who was in Disney’s “The Lion King,” “Thou Shalt Not” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”
All the salty flavor one would expect of the music-conducting crab tasked with keeping an eye on Ariel is brought to life by Jones’ portrayal of Sebastian. His conflict between helping Ariel and protecting her are evident and he is wonderful in “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” two of the show’s big ensemble numbers that showcase the choreography by Karl Warden and feature most of the 28 adult cast members plus 16 children’s ensemble members.
Last, but definitely not least, is Hickman’s portrayal as the evil sea witch, Ursula. The role is traditionally played by a woman, but director Steven Glaudini selected Hickman, well-known to Moonlight audiences and recently seen there as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” (a female role typically played by a man). The casting could not be more perfect.
From the moment Hickman slithered onto the stage shaking his eight octopus tentacles (part of an absolutely gorgeous costume designed by Moonlight’s Renetta Lloyd) he won over the audience. On Friday night it roared when he came on stage the first time and the audience’s affection remained throughout his various, though limited, appearances. Hickman channeled Ursula’s evilness perfectly, yet did not make her so scary as to frighten the youngsters watching. More is learned about Ursula’s diabolical nature and motives, which take her wicked ways to a much higher level than in the film.
As for the scenery, it is absolutely beautiful, especially when creating the shimmering underwater kingdom complete with bubbles, one of many special effects achieved through animation and projection. When combined with the lighting and costumes this show is a colorfully visual masterpiece.