A Sinking Feeling: DISNEY’S A LITTLE MERMAID

Adrienne Eller as Ariel in North Shore Music Theatre's Production of Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID running July 8 - 27, 2014. Photo©Paul Lyden

Adrienne Eller as Ariel in North Shore Music Theatre’s Production of Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID running July 8 – 27, 2014. Photo©Paul Lyden

Presented by North Shore Music Theatre
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen Story and the Disney Film produced by Howard Ashman & John Musker and written & directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
Direction by Michael Heitzman
Music directed by Bruce Barnes
Choreography by AC Ciulla

July 8th – July 27th, 2014
62 Dunham Road
Beverly, MA
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Beverly) Whenever you are suspending disbelief, there are rules that must be followed to create a new reality. It doesn’t matter if you are writing Game of Thrones or playing make-believe with a 2-year-old, the ground rules, once established, have to be enforced or the whole thing falls apart.

That is perhaps the main reason why the musical version of Disney’s A Little Mermaid, playing at the North Shore Music Theatre, couldn’t hook either me or for my 8-year-old daughter. This show is largely aquatic, but director Michael Heitzman fails to create a sea for our imagination. Sometimes, the merpeople and fish hobble awkwardly in tight fin-like gear; other times, they use the same wires and pulleys to occupy the same air as the seagull. Merpeople aren’t allowed on land, until they are at the end of the play. Too often, they crossed the streams.

If your mind isn’t occupied with the spectacle of diving into the ocean, doubts can creep in and things just start looking silly. Actress Adrienne Eller generally does a great job as Ariel, the mermaid who wants to see that the seaweed is greener on the other side, but she is almost literally hamstrung by a cumbersome costume and a directorial need to have the characters occasionally undulate to mimic the rocking of the waves in key scenes. Mark Campbell seems better equipped to camp it up as Ariel’s father, Trident, and he does this simply by largely forgetting to undulate and remembering to speak in a righteous baritone.

This would all be fine except Heitzman allows other actors more liberty to act aquatic. Jeremy Pasha and Paul Louis Lessard ooze through their parts as the evil eel henchmen Floatsam and Jetsam partly because they are allowed to use their legs and some hidden rollerblade wheels. We believe they have no backbone. Still, even when lower appendages are allowed on stage, there can be trouble with costuming. J. Cameron Barnett could be captivating as the indignant crab Sebastian, but his costume calls on him to wear a tiny red hat that at times makes him look as dignified as a bellhop, and as base as a performer in a minstrel show.

Barnett had a lot of company in being called upon to strike the wrong tone with modern society. This play seemed to zig when it should have zagged in bringing this classic story into the 21st century. Though it was first staged in 2007, it seems to double down on the sexist tone that the movie effervescently brought to life in 1989. For example, the superfluous chorus of Trident’s “other” daughters in the movie are given enough space in the play to be more like chorus girls. This makes Trident’s violently repressive streak that much worse, and the whole family dynamic feels like he is cloistering them from the outside world through his sheer strength. It’s enough to make you want to root for Ursula, the sea hag. Of course, it’s easy to root for the evil one when actress Kecia Lewis gives her such sinfully fun stage presence; you almost believe she slaughtered all her mincing sisters, in a flashback scene, as a blow for feminism.

If you squint really hard, you might be able to see the bubbly magic of the movie, but only if you want to really believe. I think it might be best to wait until the inevitable Frozen stage play comes out, or at least until the Lion King starts touring regionally, to see if Disney really can translate to the stage.

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