DISNEY'S THE LITTLE MERMAID - National TourMusic by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glen Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Dallas Summer Musicals
Directed by Glenn Casale
Original choreography by Glenn John MacInnis
Original choreography restaged by Billy Sprague
Musical Direction by Craig Barna
Scenic design by Kenneth Foy
Costume Coordination and design by Amy Clark and Mark Koss
Original Broadway costume design by Tatiana Noginova
Lighting design by Charlie Morrison
Soundscape Adaptation by Randy Hansen
Sound Design by Randy Hansen
Hair and wig Design by Leah J. Loukas
Makeup Design by Ana Maria A. Salamat
Flying sequence Choreography by Paul Rubin
Chelsea Morgan Stock (Ariel)
Eric Krunze (Prince Eric)
Steve Blanchard (King Triton)
Liz McCartney (Ursula)
Alan Mingo, Jr. (Sebastian)
Matt Allen (Scuttle)
Sean Patrick Doyle (Jetsam)
Scott Leiendecker (Flotsam)
Shawn Platzker (Flounder)
Timothy Shew (Chef Louis)
Ron Wisniski (Grimsby)
Giovanni Bonaventura, Michael McGurk, Dennis O’Bannion (Gulls)
Ensemble: Kristine Bennett, Ward Billeisen, Giovanni Bonaventura, Audrey Cardwell, Marjorie Failoni, Thay Floyd, Julie Kavanagh, Michael McGurk, Sarah Meahl, Dennis O’Bannion, Timothy Shew, Katie Ulrich, Victor J. Wisehart, and Jessica Wockenfuss.
Reviewed Performance: 2/18/2014
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In the hits bucket, they had impressive success with their first venture, the box office record-breaking classic tale of Beauty and the Beast (1994). For their first attempt treading the stage boards, the musical earned them nine Tony nominations; as for critical reaction from the New York press, it was mixed at best. It did win the Tony Award for Best Costume Design. It would lose Best Musical to Sondheim’s Passion. Next to land on the Great White Way was the critically lauded visionary masterpiece, The Lion King (1997), which received ten Tony nods, winning six, including Best Musical. Next up, Disney stepped out of animation and produced the Elton John musical AIDA (2000). While the musical was met with diverse reviews, the producers had the last laugh when it became a monster hit, both on Broadway and with its national tour. It would also take home four Tony Awards, including Best Score.
Along with Cameron Mackintosh, Disney next went into their non-animated film musicals and brought Mary Poppins to Broadway (2006). This was another Disney show that followed a similar pattern as their other shows. The Gotham press offered the show uneven critical response, but at the box office and its national tours the musical became another hit maker. Mary Poppins flew on through Broadway, earning seven Tony nominations, winning one for Best Scenic Design. Another from the Disney film vault to arrive on stage was High School Musical (2007). While the musical never made it to Broadway, the tour was a mega accomplishment.
But then came the flops. In Germany, they brought to life the Disney animated film, The Hunchback of Norte Dame (1999). The musical never reached American audiences, but it ran for three years in Berlin and earned critical approval. There is still talk of mounting a U.S. version.
In 2006 came the musical Tarzan, based on Disney’s animated film, with songs composed by Phil Collins. This was the first major flop from the Disney factory. It received bruising critical reviews - major flaws in both book and score - and could only muster 486 performances before closing. Not only was it Disney’s first big budget musical flop, it earned no Tony nominations. A U.S. tour was planned with Theatre Under The Stars, but due to financial issues, the tour was scrapped.
Disney returned to Broadway in 2008 with a stage version of The Little Mermaid (TLM). The 1989 animated film became one of Disney’s mammoth hits ever, even earning them two Oscars. But when the stage version was scheduled at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in 2007, they had the unfortunate luck of arriving right in the middle of the Broadway stagehands strike, thus resulting with the production having to shut down till the strike was over. But more thick, dark clouds of bad luck surrounded the Lunt-Fontanne and the Mermaid company. It was leaked out to the hungry tabloid press that there were major creative feuds between Disney, the producers, and Mermaid’s original Director, Francesca Zambello, on her vision of the musical. Doug Wright was brought in to work on the book, but the musical opened to tepid reviews and became yet another major financial flop, closing after only 685 performances. The musical, however, did receive two Tony nominations.
Rumors and articles circulated around the Rialto that Disney did not want to lose any more money after the very expensive flops of Tarzan and The Little Mermaid. Thus, they were very apprehensive when approached to bring one of their biggest film flops, Newsies, to the Broadway stage. But in 2011 they reluctantly opened at the Nederlander Theatre. The musical achieved endless waves of critical huzzahs from the critics and eight Tony nominations, winning two.
There are now talks of Disney bringing their current box office colossal hit, Frozen, to the Broadway stage.
But just like Ariel’s determination and defiance, The Little Mermaid musical still felt it could regain its footing (or should we say fins instead?) and return back to the drawing boards. Paper Mill Playhouse mounted a brand new production of the Disney version with a revamped script, new songs, a completely new physical production, and a totally different interpretation of the material than what Broadway audiences and the press had seen. The musical became a tremendous hit, both by the critics and the box office at the Paper Mill. Dallas Summer Musicals’ maestro, Michael Jenkins, decided to co-produce a mini national tour of the Paper Mill version, and now it has swam up stream to the stage at the Music Hall. So how did this musical fare? Did it sink like the Titanic or float on the waves of critical success? Well, let’s grab our fork…I mean dingle hopper…to brush our hair as you read this review.
Tuesday evening was the opening night for this show, DSM President and Managing Director, Michael Jenkins, informed the audience that during the time Ghost: The Musical was performing on the Music Hall stage, the artistic team for TLM already had the cast here in Dallas, rehearsing in various buildings on the Music Hall grounds. He went on to state that they auditioned in New York, Los Angeles, and here in Dallas for its cast.
Coco Chanel had a famous quote, “Before you leave the house, take a look in the mirror and take one thing off.” It is very clear this is how the production team looked at the original Broadway score for TLM. Songs are eliminated and some new ones included. In Act 1 Ursula had a song called “I Want the Good Times Back”; now she has a new song titled “Daddy’s Little Angel”. Another change is a number that Scuttle and the Gulls had in Act 1, “Human Stuff” that is also cut. Throughout the score, reprises and the placement of existing songs are also cut, restructured or changed within the running order for this new version.
All the major hit songs from the animated score remain intact for the stage version. And I have to say the new songs really do flesh out and strengthen both the characterizations and the arc that the principals have within their roles. They are sincerely quite melodic and have no hint of generic, “fill in the blank” aura that new scores tend to have.
Ursula’s first number, “Daddy’s Little Angel”, really sheds layers of her hatred, jealousy, and hunger for revenge on the royal Aquarian family. Ariel’s sisters get a terrific up-tempo, razzamatazz song, “She’s in Love”, that gives them more stage time than the film, matched with side-splitting lyrics. Scuttle has a solo that pays homage to good ‘ole vaudeville with “Positoovity”. Prince Eric has a wonderful ballad, “One Step Closer” that is done as a romantic waltz with Ariel. The new lyrics really snap, crackle, and pop, in particular with the comedic numbers. The majority of the principals get at least one full song to provide both characterization and a moment in the spotlight.
But where the creators do drop the ball is not giving King Triton his own big solo. His character arc speaks volumes to, I am sure, every parent who has to handle a teenager that defies their parenting skills and rules. It is a very glaring flaw in the score that he does not have an epic power ballad to show his pain, anger, disappointment, and even failure, as both a ruler of a kingdom and being a single parent. I hope the artistic team will fix this major hole in the score down the road.
The book by Doug Wright brings a lot of the film’s dialogue into the live version. Many of the puns and one liners are there. There are also some great new zingers in the book as well. Another new twist in the book that really fleshes out the conflict between Triton and Ursula is by making them brother and sister, children of the god Poseidon. This is a stroke of great book writing that gives both characters (and later on, darker revelations) real meat on the bone. Here again would have been a great place to give these two bigger-than-life characters a boisterous duet to sing. The lyrics for the duet could expand on their childhood and how one was crowned, while the other was banished from the kingdom.
The book does struggle with the last half of the Act 2. In the film, Ursula transforms into a human to put Eric under a spell to fall in love with her and not Ariel. She has Ariel’s voice in a mini conch shell as a necklace. In the film we have the wedding on the ship that ends in disaster. For the stage version, it gets muddy and perplexing. Somehow Ursula has entered the ballroom, has her henchmen take Ariel back down into her watery lair. At least that’s how I took the scene to be. Also the destruction of Ursula is a head scratcher. The conch shell is tossed away, but how does that destroy her? The book really stretches these two flawed scenes quite thinly so that we as the audience have to fill in the blanks.
Even though the book and score could still use some more work, the overall result is like a glistening pearl you would find in an oyster shell.
Glenn Casale’s direction earns esteemed kudos for really dissecting the piece and repairing the major issues the piece had while on Broadway. It was a wise decision to make sure the actors were allowed to create their own interpretations of their characters. They do not try to impersonate or recreate the film’s voices and characterizations. Casale also was keenly aware of making sure that audiences not feel as though they are sitting at a Disney amusement park themed show. He gives equal weight to entertain both adults and kids alike, but also gives the piece dramatic overtones and true romance. The actors do not have to be sugar-coated and over-the-top to bring to life such beloved characters. The pace zips along very nicely. The intimate, touching moments are given just the right amount of time to breathe and develop on stage, while the comedy is a mixture of spot on delivery and zany physical pieces that achieves resounding laughter.
I don’t know if was Casale or Choreographer Billy Sprague who came up with the following idea, but whoever did, it is a stroke of genius! There is flying used frequently to simulate underwater swimming and diving. Remember, so much of the action takes place at the bottom of the sea. Thus, the actors move their bodies constantly as though they are surrounded by water. They rock ever so slightly or wiggle their bodies. They never break this movement, thus making you feel that that they are indeed on the ocean floor. Just a marvelous staging idea that works like magic! Also, to have Ursula’s henchmen constantly use and move her tentacles to create emotion and physical comedy is another brilliant idea by director and choreographer.
The design and production elements of this production is like opening up a treasure chest and immediately become blinded by the glittery, sparkling, mouthwatering array of riches inside.
Going by the credits, it has Costume Coordination and Design by Amy Clark and Mark Koss, and also lists Original Broadway Costume Design by Tatiana Noginova. The Playbill also has Costume Modification and Custom Fabrication by Paper Mill Playhouse Costume. So I am guessing it’s an amalgamation of all three groups that created the exquisite costumes that are a feast for the eyes. The color palette and the endless array of fabrics and patterns simply explode with so much color and sparkle. The costume creations alone for King Triton, Ursula and Ariel are sublime, so rich in opulent detail with both fabrics and embellishments. I won’t ruin the surprise here for you, but those three wear costumes that are just masterpieces of cloth.
Then there are the costumes for “Under the Sea”. A tidal wave of spectacular colors, patterns, feathers, ostrich plumes, sequins, and rhinestones hit the audience with those costumes. To aid the actors simulate swimming, the costume designers added yards of flowing chiffon in various tones of green, as well as glittery iridescent fabrics with accordion sculpturing. This gives the illusion of fins and tails. It is astounding on how visually thrilling it is to see how they achieve the illusion of swimming on stage with the costumes.
The costumes are completed with smashing Hair and Wig Design by Leah J. Loukas and striking Makeup Design by Ana Maria A. Salamat.
Kenneth Foy’s scenic design is flawless from the first note to the finale. He has designed an array of backdrops and set pieces that glide across the stage or come in from the fly rail. For the ocean, he has a standing wall and a long waist-high piece that looks like clear plastic, and covered with an array of glass bubbles to look like ocean foam. Various backdrops are drenched in splendid bold colors. Set pieces whisper off and on stage throughout the performance, all finely detailed in design and scope. Foy’s scenic design greatly aids in keeping the pace going. It can quickly take us from land to sea in seconds.
Lighting design by Charlie Morrison is a myriad of specials, gobos and epic effects that turn the Music Hall stage into a massive ocean. He follows the same color palette as his other designers, thus we are dazzled with a parade of lavish colors. The gobos and specials to create water are remarkable. Even during certain songs, Morrison has specific, detailed lighting that gives both the lyric and the actor either an extra kick to get a bigger laugh, or to melt your heart during the romantic scenes. Morrison achieves such design of light with successful finesse.
Talk about the catch of the day! The creative team has assembled a phenomenal cast, from its principals to its ensemble.
The ensemble plays a dizzying array of characters. They are sailors, sea creatures, palace servants, royal courtiers and even “Mersisters”! They all have glistening vocals that fill the stage with robust singing. For example, listen to their lush harmonies during the song “Under the Sea”. They execute the choreography with sizzle, from jazz to tap to contemporary, they never miss a step. Their comedy skills are on the same level as the principals, giving the audience extra coatings of laughter.
As the Mersisters, Kristine Bennett, Audrey Cardwell, Marjorie Failoni, Julie Kavanagh, Katie Ulrich, and Jessica Wockenfuss are hysterical. They are all the daughters of King Triton and sisters to Ariel, each one has their own comedic persona, which gives them moments to glow in the spotlight. I think it is a very smart move not to play them all jealous and evil (like Cinderella’s step sisters). Instead they are an army of Tina Feys and Amy Poehlers! They big number, “She’s in Love”, is a major highlight of the musical.
Within this top notch cast is a plethora of superior performances, such as Ron Wisniski, who as Grimsby, has just the dose of foppish snobbery as the concerned guardian to Eric. Timothy Shew gives a side-splitting, jovial performance as Chef Louis. His big comedic number, “Les Poissons”, was a crowd favorite opening night. The dining room table scene that Stew and the other chefs have later on is comedy gold. Shawn Platzker portrays Flounder. In the film he’s a tiny guppy who is like a brother to Ariel. On stage, he’s the same age as Ariel, and has a deep crush on her. Platzker uses a really unique skate board to move Flounder around the stage like a fish. With his color-spiked hair and his solid characterization of cool teen who blushes around girls, he is endearing and sweet. He kinda reminds me of a younger version of pro skater, Tony Hawk.
Scott Leiendecker as Flotsam, and Sean Patrick Doyle as Jetsam with fiendish delight relish as Ursula’s henchmen. I’m going to save the surprise by not telling you about their costumes and makeup, but you will love them! Both actors work superbly as a duo, gliding all around the stage on roller skates, and with their body movements and costume construction, they actually look like they are slithering under the sea! Their duet, “Sweet Child”, is eerie and spine tingling to the core. When they are with their master, Ursula, they are constantly moving and changing her long, glittered and bejeweled tentacles to hilarious comic effect.
As Scuttle, the seagull who completely butchers the language he thinks he hears from humans, Matt Allen delivers a very impressive characterization. He uses a speaking voice that has the familiar ring of Buddy Hackett (who voiced the role in the film). But Allen has his own comedic interpretation of the role, resulting in a first-rate performance. He does a spiffy homage to vaudeville with the musical number, “Positoovity”, in Act 2. Three of his fellow Gulls, Giovanni Bonaventura, Michael McGurk and Dennis O’Bannion, join Allen in this show-stopping tap number. At Tuesday’s performance, some of Allen’s feathers fell off in a clump on stage. Only a true master of comedy would know what to do here, and Allen did just that. He simply picked them up and threw them into the stage wings, then kept on tapping, but then gave an ad-lib to Ariel, “See? I can do this without feathers!” The audience roared on that one! As they say in rehearsal, “Keep it!” LOL.
Alan Mingo, Jr. was here at DSM with the national tour of Shrek The Musical as Donkey. He seems to stick to playing animals on stage! In TLM, he is court composer Sebastian, a crab. With his red wig, refined costume of satin and various shades of reds and wine hues, he does remind you of Antonio Salieri (Amadeus’ arch rival). Mingo has the great treat to sing two of the film’s best known songs, “Under The Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”. With his soaring tenor vocals and added Jamaican dialect, both are show-stopping numbers. His comedic timing, delivery and pace is hilarious from beginning to end. His facial expressions provide the actor yet another tier for his comedic talents to soar.
Dallas audiences are very lucky to have this limited national tour arrive at the Music Hall. Why? Because several of its principals are major Broadway stars that diehard fans of musical theater will be thrilled to find out that they are here!
Eric Kunze portrays Prince Eric. Originally, the role was to have been played by another Broadway actor, Nick Adams, but he had to leave the show to take over the role of Fiyero on the Wicked tour. But fear not as Kunze has several major Broadway hits under his belt (Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Damn Yankees). Kunze actually looks quite like the film version of the prince. Kunze has a resplendent tenor voice that would have schools of mermaids swimming toward him! The belt is full and rich, while the vibrato is smooth as silk. He gets to sing two new songs that were composed for the stage version, “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer”. Kunze wraps his golden voice around both songs like sparkling gift-wrapped presents to give to the audience. He delivers a magical, fascinating performance.
Chelsea Morgan Stock is Ariel, the red-haired daughter who has the burden of being the youngest daughter of the king. Stock was in the original Broadway cast of TLM, so she has been with the show for quite some time now. I comment on that because she brings forth a very dynamic, multi-layered performance that could have only resulted due to her long history with the show. While this is a musical the whole family can attend, Stock does not portray Ariel like the film nor sinks into saccharine, sugary sweetness. She gives Ariel’s arc & subtext grounded reality of a girl who is conflicted by her father’s iron-hand parenting and distaste for humans because she is in love with one. Stock sincerely tugs at the audience’s heart with her meticulous performance. The role has equal amounts of comedy, romance and dramatic overtones. She gets gold stars in all three areas. Her pristine, glorious soprano voice floats over the audience just as she floats high above the stage. I must commend her greatly on having to belt the high notes of “Part of Your World” while flying in the air. To be able to sustain a soaring soprano belt, not allowing her vibrato to quiver off track, while confined to a harness that surely is constricting her diaphragm, well that’s called pure talent folks. Stock has the famous, signature ballad to sing, and she delivers it with superior results.
Kunze and Stock have sincere, beautiful onstage chemistry. They play off each other like a real couple in love. It does not come off mawkish or false, but quite romantic and even funny at times, as they try to gain common ground on their emotions. They both will steal your hearts.
Steve Blanchard holds one of the best known records in Broadway history. He has the great distinction of having portrayed the role of the beast in Beauty and the Beast longer than any other actor who has played that role on the Great White Way. He has a wealth of Broadway and national tours to his credit, and is one of Broadway’s best leading men. I had the great pleasure to catch his performance on Broadway in BATB, and he was incredible in the role. As King Triton in TLM, it’s a nice relief to see his leading man, handsome features not covered in beast hair and prosthetics. Blanchard is a tall, muscular actor that really serves him well as the King, for he completely commands the stage. His presence is piercing; he has that rare gift to have the audience stay focused on him each time he steps into the stage lights.
Blanchard gives Triton organic truth and conflicted subtext of being a king and a single parent. His scenes with Stock provide the best dramatic work of the entire show. Both he and Stock wear the subtext like a second skin, so when they battle as daughter and father, it is both dramatic and honest. Blanchard has a booming, incredible singing voice. Thus, it is such a waste to not use his epic singing voice with a big solo song for his character. You literally can sense it from your seat, “That’s where Triton would have a great number”. Nonetheless, Blanchard delivers a majestic, superlative performance.
Then there is Liz McCartney as Ursula. She is one of Broadway’s best divas! She comes to Dallas directly from the recent Broadway revival of Annie. She has been in the original Broadway casts of such musicals as Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Mamma Mia! I had the great fortune to catch her in all three of these on Broadway. McCartney earned cult status as Big Sue in the Boy George musical Taboo. Once you’ve seen her out of this world, scene-stealing performance as Ursula, you will see why she is one of Broadway’s best.
Ms. McCartney has a set of vocal pipes that would make Ethel Merman seethe in green envy in the wings. This gal needs no body mic, believe me! She possesses one of those stunning, soprano voices that can cause the rafters to shake. It’s a mighty voice, and you can never get enough. After her first big show-stopping solo, “Daddy’s Little Angel”, you desperately want McCartney to return to the stage for another song, then another. Like Blanchard, she has a stage presence that is so fiery and sizzling, she makes the Olympic torch at Sochi look like a withering matchstick. That’s how astronomical her stage presence and talents are.
You can clearly see McCartney is having the time of her life savoring every moment as the evil, grand diva of the sea. She gives the role shades of Mae West, Carol Burnett, Bette Davis, and Eartha Kitt. Her comedic timing, pace, and delivery is the best of the night. She nails the comedy in every single scene she’s in. She knows just where to place the added “oomph” of comedy to slay the audience with laughter. She has the most elaborate and massive costume to work with, and boy does she ever work it! Her tentacles become not only added layers for comedy, but also sensual, sexy appendages to her sinister plans. She uses them like Medusa’s snakes; she hypnotizes the audience with them. McCartney has one of the best show numbers of the evening with “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. The way she slithers and works her comedic brilliance, as well as her physical movements and facial expressions on that song, results in hysterical laughter and thunderous applause. Ms. McCartney’s performance is like the conch shell she uses for her mystical powers - she completely puts the audience under her spell and steals the show!
Full disclosure here: I was an actor/singer with Walt Disney World Entertainment in Orlando, Florida when the film came out in 1989. At that time they didn’t put their films into fully-produced stage musicals. Instead, they created mini-shows from the films, mixed in with the Magic Kingdom shows and parades. I had the great pleasure of being one of the first to portray Sebastian in the shows and parades. Many of us performers at Disney loved the film. It holds a lot of very special memories of my time at the Magic Kingdom, and in particular with The Little Mermaid.
So, having now come full circle and seen a full-size, staged musical of the film, I think it is a truly unparalleled and outstanding production. It has so much heart, romance, laughter and joy, just like the film. The score is a glittering gem, and the majority of the book does work solidly throughout the show. The design elements are just jaw-dropping elegance. But it is this cast that makes The Little Mermaid so remarkable and heartfelt. This is a musical that hits all the demographics, from teens and young couples in love to musical theater fans, kids and adults alike.
Grab a seahorse and ride on over to the Music Hall to see The Little Mermaid. It is a spectacular achievement, taking a flop on Broadway and turning it into a tour de force success. Just avoid a certain sea witch who will offer you a deal that you have to sign on a scroll contract with her own venomous ink from her elongated tentacle!
Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall
Through March 2, 2014
There will be eight performances weekly. All evening performances will be held at 7:30pm, and matinee performances will be at 1:30pm on Saturdays, Sundays and selected Thursdays during the show’s run.
Single tixs are priced from $25-$90, available at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane #542 Preston Royal Shopping Center, or any Ticketmaster outlet. Tixs also available at www.ticketmaster.com or www.dallassummermusicals.org For groups of 10 or more, call 214-426-GROUP (4768)