The Disney version of THE LITTLE MERMAID (playing at the Strand through Dec. 6th) was a wild success as an animated film, then yet another success for Disney on the stage. How I have resisted seeing either version until now is beyond me! Now that I have witnessed the captivating musical, I understand why it’s such a crowd pleaser. The Alan Menken music is catchy and hip, smartly borrowing a tune or two from Saint-Saens—and the Howard Ashman/Glenn Slater lyrics are cheeky enough for adults to savor.
Doug Wright’s clever book (based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale) references far flung topics like ocean conservancy and even vegetarianism (King Triton warns his fellow sea creatures against the barbaric humans’ hooks and traps)…He disapproves of dating outside one’s race (of course, it’s ‘species’ in this case) … and Wright gives Teddy Roosevelt a nod (who famously quipped that he could either run the country or rein in his daughter but not both). Triton, like TR, can’t keep his daughter, Ariel, away from a human prince and govern a kingdom at the same time.
That prince is, of course, mighty charming but Jared Troilo makes him more than a cipher. He’s got gumption, backbone and a funny bone, to boot. Jesse Lynn Harte as Ariel, too, makes us believe she’s got spunk. She’s willing to do whatever it takes, including the loss of her home, her friends and her voice, to land her prince.
Director Stacey Stephens has a crackerjack cast to bring every eel and crustacean to buoyant life. His delightful costumes capture the essence of the characters, like lobster claw gloves and golf ball eyes perched on top of Sebastian’s head, to signify a crab. Triton has assigned Sebastian the formidable task of keeping an eye, or two, on his wayward, windward daughter.
Lucky for us because Sebastain, who hails from Caribbean waters, has two of the best songs in the musical: the calypso show stoppers, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Jay Kelley is spectacular in the role, wringing his claws over Ariel’s disregard for safety…even endangering his own by getting awfully close to Andy Papas’ palace chef.
Best of all is Shana Dirik as the villainous Ursula. Poor, wretched creature: She lost out when her brother became ruler of the sea. Andrew Giordano as a stalwart Triton doesn’t brook much mischief in his waters so Ursula steers clear of her brother—but manages to reel in his unsuspecting daughter.
Dirik brings the house down with her vengeful, sardonic anthem, mocking her enemies as “Poor, Unfortunate Souls.” Thank heavens she gets to reprise it in Act II. Dirik is sublime, in her Phyllis Diller wig and tentacle skirted, sea foam gown. She devours the scenery, as they say, and we can’t get enough of her high voltage performance.
In case you’re giving this a literal read, I should say that there’s lots of Mac Young’s ingenious scenery left. Especially lovely are the waves which rise as we plunge down into the water to observe the skates and jellyfish in the deep. Kira Cowan-Troilo’s beguiling choreography for the creatures makes their limitations an asset, as in Eddy Cavazos’ amusingly awkward attempt to keep up with the other gulls in their gavotte. Charles Peltz’ orchestra sounds so full and robust that you’re happily swept away with the swelling music to the land of mermaids.