Those folks at Disney do not have a lock on turning familiar fairy tales and children’s literature into charming and engaging entertainment fit for the entire family to enjoy.
Take, for example, the award-winning Imagination Stage which has been enchanting audiences of all ages since it was founded in the late 1970s as the Bethesda Academy of the Performing Arts. Imagination Stage has presented a myriad of titles through the years, including the celebrated and decorated adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in 2012. That Helen Hayes-winning production brought together prominent members of the DMV dance community, children’s theatre, and music to create a fondly remembered production. DC Theatre Scene critic Larry Bangs declared that summer 2012 “collaboration at its very best – every element of live performance melded together into one seamless piece of theatrical virtuosity.”
Those collaborators are back and they have once again taken their brand of theatrical alchemy to concoct a retelling of The Little Mermaid that is faithful to the original, is a feast for the eyes and ears, and weaves a spell to enchant the young and young at heart.
Who are these ideal collaborators who have struck gold for a second time? Imagination Stage’s own artistic director Janet Stanford wrote the book and lyrics, while Matthew Pierce has provided the score and soundscape. Together Stanford and Pierce have taken the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and whittled the story down to its essential plot while maintaining elements of magic and romance. Also from the 2012 collaboration, Kathryn Chase Bryer has returned to direct The Little Mermaid,working closely with co-choreographers Septime Weber and David Palmer of The Washington Ballet.
Suffice it to say, these imaginative artists have a strong working relationship and the fruit of their labors is a perfect melding of storytelling, dance, music, and puppetry. One part dance show, two parts musical and an extra measure of marine biology for fun, The Little Mermaid is a dreamy and touching tale of family and love. Dancers and singers share the stage, dynamic puppets bring to life an array of sea creatures both lovely and deadly – look for the shark, always lurking nearby and making its presence known. All the elements of stagecraft transport the audience to the depths of the ocean, to the shores of Denmark and back again.
Matthew Pierce has not only provided an atmospheric soundtrack to help paint an aural picture of the oceanic world of the play, his score to accompany the lyrics by Janet Stanford are memorable and tuneful, even with a melancholy slant. The adaptation from Andersen’s short story expands some characters and adds a few others to flesh out the story. This production will not bump off Disney’s take on the same story, but it deserves to stand on its own as an honorable and faithful spin on the original.
Truly a fish-girl out of water tale, The Little Mermaid follows Pearl, the youngest of three mer-sisters who call the sea their home. Pearl is bright, mercurial, and eager for adventures that go beyond the ocean depths. Siblings Coral and Amber are likewise playful, but follow their mer-father’s edicts a little more closely than Pearl.
One of the clever stage conventions employed by Bryer, Weber and Palmer is that each of the central characters is portrayed by both an actor/singer and a dancer. These performers tag-in and out of the action, depending on the slant of the storytelling. At the top of the show, lithe and graceful Giselle MacDonald is “Dancer Pearl,” diving through the waves, and swirling through the ocean depths, held aloft and spun by other dancers as mer-men. (Note: because the program indicates Sarah Steele doubles as “Dancer Pearl/Coral,” she might have been in the opening sequence. I wish this point had been clearer in the program.) After the opening dance establishing the fluid world of the mer-folk, Justine Icy Moral took over as the bright-eyed Pearl, carrying on the story through the book scenes and musical numbers, with MacDonald/Steele tagging in whenever the scene evolved into a balletic sequence.
Actors and dancers sharing the same role has been around for many years (think “Dream Laurey” and “Dream Curley” in the ballet section of Oklahoma!, for example), but here the seamless merging of the two genres of performance was not only spot-on but brought a whole other level of theatricality to the popular children’s tale.
Sharing duties as the handsome prince Pearl not only falls for but is willing to sacrifice her life for, were actor/singer Tiziano D’Affuso and Christopher Collins. Each performer brought to Prince Edvard a winning charm and whether it was D’Affusio’s singing or Collins dancing, the character was clearly defined.
As in other versions of the story, Pearl thinks she wants nothing more than to shed her fins and become a land dweller with legs, despite the warnings of Mer-father, played with gentle authority by Todd Scofield. Pearl must choose to continue living with her own kind or strike a deal with the stylishly tentacled and witchy Enchantress – a knock-out performance by Jennie Lutz.
The Little Mermaid
closes August 14, 2016
Details and tickets
One of the hallmarks of Imagination Stage is creating and producing theatre that is aimed at young audiences but can be appreciated by patrons of any age. The Little Mermaid is no exception. Smaller children can revel in its comic moments and theatrical magic, whilst the adults can catch on to the higher themes of acceptance of self, and the power of family. Parents who bring children may also want to be warned, as in the original Hans Christian Andersen story, the ending of The Little Mermaid is a little more bitter than sweet. Even though it is a fantasy filled with whimsy and spectacle, the ending may take a little bit of explaining for the youngest audience members.
Along with the careful adaptation and engaging storytelling, the production values are likewise top-notch, which is no surprise at Imagination Stage. Milagros Ponce de Leon’s scenic design with projections, carefully placed set pieces and skillfully crafted artifacts works to keep the plot flowing as gracefully as the company of dancers who populate the stage. The usual fine costume work by Helen Huang is magnified in this production by the nautical uniforms and period dresses of the Danish humans and the phantasmagorically inclined sea-folk. Jason Arnold’s lighting design proves to be an essential aspect of the staging and his work fully employs the resources of the Imagination Stage space to enhance the storytelling throughout every scene.
The particular brand of theatrical magic and seamless integration of music, drama, dance and puppetry from Imagination Stage and The Washington Ballet is a winning combination that brings children’s literature to life for a new generation of readers and playgoers.
The Little Mermaid . Adapted from Hans Christian Andersen . Book and lyrics by Janet Stanford, Music by Matthew Pierce . Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer . Choreographed by Septime Weber and David Palmer . Featuring Afua Busia, Tiziano D’Affuso, Emily Kester, Jennie Lutz, Justine Icy Moral, Todd Scofield, Emily Zickler, Aidan Carrasquel, Christopher Collins, Amelia Grubb, A. Logan Hillman, Mariana Lopez, Giselle MacDonald, Ben Rabe, Sarah Steele . Music director and lyric/music consultant: George Fulginiti-Shakar . Scenic design: Milagros Ponce de Leon . Costume design: Helen Huang . Lighting design: Jason Arnold . Sound design: Christopher Baines . Stage manager: Che Wernsman . Produced by Imagination Stage in collaboration with The Washington Ballet . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.