In 1989, a certain Disney film swore to every attentive child that “life is the bubbles under the sea.” Now, 25 years later, Olney Theatre Center’s The Little Mermaid confirms that it’s still worth spending some quality time with the blowfish, crabs, octovillains and merfolk who inhabit their most recent production.
The basic plot of this stage adaptation holds true to the children’s movie, following the naïve and rebellious young mermaid as she chases her obsession with the world above the water line. Ariel’s eclectic friends–a fish, a misguided seagull, and a chaperoning crab–try to steer her back toward the life of water, sand, and royalty that has been prescribed for her, but when a freak storm sends a sailor overboard, she seizes on her chance to get close to one of those forbidden humans.
Of course, the sailor is really Prince Eric, they both fall in love (never mind the fact that he was unconscious), and Ariel trades her sparkling voice for two feet and a life of silence so she might be near him again.
The Disney purist should understand going in that, while the heart and major tenets of the beloved film have been upheld, several subplots have been changed for theatrical effect.
For one, the stage rendition gives Ursula more motivation for—and proof of—her evil plotting, revealing in the new song “Daddy’s Little Angel” that she killed off her six older sisters so that she would inherit the sea. Triton, we discover, was her little brother, and took the throne in her stead when he came of age. This twist grants a strange parallel between Ursula and Ariel—each the youngest of seven sisters, each eager to deviate from the life she was handed, regardless the consequences.
And the characters of Vanessa (Ursula’s humanoid form imbued with Ariel’s voice) and Max (Eric’s trusty dog, who I didn’t remember or miss until thinking back on the film) have been excised entirely.
But neither has the film Mermaid been plucked from its cartoon origins. Each of the film’s known and loved songs remain intact, enhanced by the performers and live orchestra. Only “Les Poissons” seems somewhat transformed, its later half sounding somewhat like the lovechild of this ode to French fish and “Be Our Guest” from an altogether different Disney film. New numbers allow Triton, Ursula, Flounder, and Scuttle, to each showcase their vocal chops, and — while not all of these songs blend seamlessly with the existing book and lyrics — the cast more than meets the challenge of these new songs.
Because truly, this cast is nothing shy of exceptional. The talented multi-tasking ensemble serves as merfolk, sailors, chefs, puppeteers, dance corps, stagehands, fabric ocean wavers, and more. The number of costume changes alone seems exhausting, and that’s without considering Tara Jeanne Vallee’s stylistically diverse choreography and Mark Waldrop’s innovative, energetic staging. Oh, and lest we forget, they’re on on a raked stage.
Lara Zinn’s Ariel captures the duality of Ariel’s innocence and rebellion in every scene, all while singing with the crystalline notes and charming smile that could make even the greatest skeptic believe Disney’s cartoon heroine had come to life. Flanked, in turns, by an adorably love-struck, friend-zoned Flounder (Sean McComas); a crustacean royal attendant (Troy Hopper); and of course, the good Prince Eric (Joe Chisholm), Zinn’s Ariel is gracious in her defiance, lovable in her obstinance, and expressive and emotional even when rendered silent.
As Ursula, Donna Migliaccio is deliciously wicked, bitingly hilarious, and entirely in her element. She’s everything you could want in an evil witch and more. From the tip of her tentacles to the far reaches of her spindly hair, this Ursula cackles, cackles, and belts her way through “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” flinging her cephalopod body around the stage with perfect comedic flair.
DISNEY’S THE LITTLE MERMAID
EXTENDED! Closes January 11, 2015
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 15 minutes, 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
(recommended: ages 5 and up)
As Ariel’s father, King Triton, Nicholas Ward’s performance is booming and authoritative–the quintessential overprotective parent. His powerful deep bass in “If Only (Triton’s Lament)” makes it clear that this is no king to cross.
A flying, harnessed Scuttle (Clark Young) and two evil minions that put the “eel” in their heelys (Robert Mintz and Nurney) round out the cast. All three of them earn bonus points for the technical complexity of their roles, but moreover, these small roles remain as well-sung, as vibrant, and as memorable as any of their counterparts. If there is a weak link in this cast, it must have stayed hidden in the wings on opening night.
Child, adult, invertebrate, or prince, this production of The Little Mermaid will make you want to trade your feet for flippers in Olney’s world under the sea. Even if it means trading your voice to an evil sea witch–do whatever it takes to see this colorful and expertly crafted delight this holiday season.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid . Book by Doug Wright .Music by Alan Menken . Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater .Directed by Mark Waldrop . Featuring Jane Bunting, Joe Chisholm, Jennifer Cordiner, Kenneth Derby, Jay Garrick, Matt Greenfield, Lance Hayes, Troy Hopper, Gracie Jones, Ethan Kasnett, Ashleigh King, Sean McComas, Donna Migliaccio, Robert Mintz, Nurney, Taylor Elise Rector, Suzanne Stanley, Nicholas Ward, Ethan Watermeier, Clark Young, and Lara Zinn as Ariel.Costume Design: Pei Lee . Set Design: James Fouchard . Sound Design: Tony Angelini . Choreographer: Tara Jeanne Valee . Musical Director: Darius Smith . Lighting Designer: Julie H. Duro . Projections/Media Design: JJ Kaczynski . Stage Managers: Josiane M. Lemieux (until 11/25) and Shari Silberglitt, assisted by Rachel Hamilton and Alex Stone.Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.