When it premiered on Broadway in 2008, The Little Mermaid was a footnote in Disney’s curiously declining theatrical presence (Tarzan had unfortunately come along two years earlier, while The Hunchback of Notre Dame was struggling to make it out of Europe). The retooled version of Mermaid currently premiering at Dallas Summer Musicals may still not be on par with The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, but its fins at least appear pointed in the right direction.
An updated book, new songs, and wires instead of wheels to simulate the swimming give this new production some much-needed sparkle. The marvelously-executed design concept delineates clearly between dry land and the fathoms below, making it easier to follow mermaid princess Ariel as she tries on a pair of legs, follows around a cute human prince, and searches for where she truly belongs. Though there are still a few murky choices floating around (namely, ageing up Ariel’s fish pal Flounder so that he’s now secretly in love with her), the show mostly avoids beaching itself in the shallow end.
Director Glenn Casale explained during the rehearsal period that his main goal in tweaking the book was to make the show less about Ariel chasing the guy, and more about her (and Prince Eric) getting to a place where they are finally comfortable. Both are presented as outsiders early on, with Ariel singing longingly of “The World Above” and Eric expressing his desire to be a sailor rather than a king.
If this outsider mentality is hammered home a bit too hard by Doug Wright, who’s known for penning darker works like Grey Gardens and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife, then it’s forgiven whenever the orchestra cues up one of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Glen Slater’s Academy Award-winning songs.
Chelsea Morgan Stock is in lovely voice as Ariel, while Eric Kunze, as Prince Eric, is given two songs in which to display his strong baritone. Alan Mingo, Jr. keeps Sebastian the crab’s Jamaican accent, yet lets loose with slippery vocal flair on beloved tunes such as “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Matt Allen is given a slick new tap-dancing number, “Positoovity,” for his Scuttle the seagull.
Broadway name Liz McCartney, playing Ursula and slinking around in one helluva glittery octopus gown, is delightfully wicked when she’s onstage, which sadly isn’t much. Her slithery sidekicks (Scott Leiendecker and Sean Patrick Doyle) are also a kick to watch as they coast around the stage on wheeled shoes, the only pairs kept from the original production.
Paul Rubin and Flying by Foy are to thank for the “swimming” effects, which for the most part come off as seamless rather than clunky. Even the aquatic creatures who don’t grab air tend to undulate when onstage, which helps greatly in maintaining the magical Disney façade.