'Disney's The Little Mermaid' at the Dr. Phillips Center is the theatrical equivalent of red tide

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The cast of Disney's The Little Mermaid, at the Dr. Phillips Center through March 12. - PHOTO BY MARK & TRACY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography
  • The cast of Disney's The Little Mermaid, at the Dr. Phillips Center through March 12.
When I was a teenager, the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid reignited my love of Disney animation (which had nearly been extinguished by The Black Cauldron) and it has remained a favorite film of mine ever since. So despite its troubled production history, I was looking forward to seeing the revised touring version of the 2008 Broadway musical, which is currently playing at the Dr. Phillips Center through March 12. Sadly, this voyage “under the sea” isn’t a visionary reimagining like Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, a technical triumph like Mary Poppins, or even a slight but exuberant entertainment like Newsies. Instead, The Little Mermaid flops about onstage like a beached bass, suffering badly in comparison to stagings of the same story that have played for decades in Disney’s theme parks and cruise ships.

The original film is a tightly paced 83 minutes, featuring a half-dozen blockbuster songs and hardly any filler. The stage musical’s first fatal flaw is Doug Wright’s bloated book, which balloons the tale by nearly an hour with tedious fish puns and unnecessary exposition. The sibling backstory between King Triton (Steve Blanchard) and his sea-witch nemesis, Ursula (Jennifer Allen), that was edited out of the movie is a welcome restoration. But by expanding the roles of sidekicks – like Grimsby (Allen Fitzpatrick), Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini), and the disturbingly sexualized Flounder (Connor Russell) – the show loses focus on Ariel (Diana Huey) as protagonist, leaving her relationship with Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) feeling even more underdeveloped than it was on-screen.

The sluggish show is also padded with unmemorable new musical numbers by Alan Menken and Glen Slater, which now outnumber the iconic songs written with the late Ashman. Menken’s marvelous original orchestral score should have been mined for new material (like Lion King did with “Shadowland” and “Endless Night”), but instead, most of the added music is monotonously unmelodic pastiche, and Ashman’s lyrics were far wittier than anything in the obvious and repetitive new numbers.

Director Glenn Casale (abetted by choreographer John MacInnis) does the weak material no favors with sloppy, superficial staging that manages to be both busy and boring at the same time. Broadway’s much-mocked Heelys roller-shoes are mostly gone; instead, the actors perform incessant underwater undulations that quickly grow distracting – if animated Ariel constantly contorted her core like that, parents would burn their Blurays in horror. Every emotional moment is shot with the subtlety of a harpoon toward the back balcony, and though the actors have powerful voices, they never connect on a human (or merman) level with each other or the audience.

You’d hope that technical wizardry could at least save this production, but even that aspect pales in comparison to Disney’s earlier work. Beyond the lovely nautical faux proscenium, Kenneth Foy’s scenic design looks as chintzy as the cut-down non-union Beauty and the Beast tour, mostly featuring plastic bubbles slapped on obvious frames. Paul Rubin’s touted flying effects are limited to a few characters, and aren’t any more impressive than Animal Kingdom’s Finding Nemo show.

Perhaps it's a saving grace that Charlie Morrison’s lighting is so murky that you often can’t see the costumes by Amy Clark and Mark Koss, which run the gamut from entirely expected (Ariel and Eric could be on break from their shifts at Magic Kingdom) to inappropriate (Triton looks suspiciously like SuperFriends-era Aquaman) and ugly (Flounder looks more like a dead bird than a fish); the “Vegas showgirls meet Caribbean Carnival” getups for “Under the Sea” are a head-scratching lowlight. Only Sebastian the Crab (Melvin Abston), cleverly crowned with a curled colonial wig, shows a hint of what could have been. And while normally a sound design as hollow and muddy as Ed Chapman’s would be the final nail in this show’s coffin, a microphone failure during Ursula’s big number on opening night prompted the only genuine laugh of the evening, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Maybe someday someone will take yet another crack at The Little Mermaid and produce something with a fraction of the heart and charm of the movie, but that day is not yet here. Until then, go see the long-running show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios instead; tired and truncated as it is, it’s still far more entertaining than this theatrical equivalent of red tide.

Disney's The Little Mermaid
through March 12
Walt Disney Theater, Dr. Phillips Center
445 S. Magnolia Ave.
844-513-2014
drphillipscenter.org
$33.75-$153.75


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