DALLAS The 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid marked the beginning of the Disney renaissance, an era of animated features that reached a new golden age in the 2000s. But it was the stage musical version of The Lion King (1997) that made ticket buyers take notice of the Disney Theatrical Group.
The latter is still the king of the musical jungle because innovative director Julie Taymor transformed it into a theatrical event, with inventive puppetry and design, instead of making it a carbon copy of the movie, a la Beauty and the Beast.
Many Disney films have been re-created for the stage since then ( Aladdin opens on Broadway next month), but nothing has matched the creativity or popularity of The Lion King. Not even The Little Mermaid, which ran on Broadway for less than two years (a dud by Disney standards), starting at the end of 2007.
So whats a popular Disney princess to do? Reinvent.
A reimagined version of Disneys The Little Mermaid has made its debut in North Texas, courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals. Directed by Glenn Casale, the musicals improvements are vast. Subsequent productions in Houston and Atlanta will follow, in hopes of a return to the Great White Way.
Where the 2007 version kept the sea creatures on the stage floor, floating on skates (or Heelys), this new version makes use of the entire stage box, bounded by the four sides of the proscenium, as the ocean.
Large patches of bubbles float by, and many of the fish/human hybrids, including the title character (Chelsea Morgan Stock) and King Triton (Steve Blanchard), fly through the water (flying effects by Kenneth Foy). So does Scuttle the seagull (Matt Allen) when flying above land. On the shore, the sea creatures bob in nearby pools as others walk on the beach.
It also helps that the original movies music was by Alan Menken, a composer with stage musical cred ( Little Shop of Horrors). On stage, his musical influences are even more apparent, from Kurt Weill (Ursulas fantastic Poor Unfortunate Souls, the best number in the movie) to Richard Rodgers (Prince Erics Her Voice).
Of course, the famous songs from the movie, including Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl, are there. For the 2007 Broadway version, Glen Slater and Howard Ashman created new lyrics; and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, a Dallas native, wrote the book, and has reworked it some for this new, more cohesive version.
All in all, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience, especially appreciated by kids who love the movie and their parents and grandparents. And as always in Disney movies, the theme of inclusion and tolerance of others is prominent, but never preachy.
A big part of the success in Dallas is the design scenic by Foy, costumes by Amy Clark and Mark Ross, lighting by Charlie Morrison, soundscape by Randy Hansen and hair/wigs by Leah J. Loukas. Theyve done a wonderful job of evoking the underwater fantasy world, as well as with the whimsical costumes, which take the movie several fin-strokes forward visually.
The staging of the evil Ursula is especially amazing, and so is the actress playing her, the big-voiced Liz McCartney, unraveling her tentacles like a giant mink stole.
Also unforgettable is a scene at the top of Act 2 in Prince Erics (Eric Kunze) palace, as spying crab Sebastian (a terrific Alan Mingo Jr.) dodges the antics of Chef Louis (Timothy Shew) and the other cooks. Its a madcap feat of genius comic timing.
As Ariel, Stock has a lovely voice and captures that mix of curiosity and girlish innocence that we know from the movie (and the original Hans Christian Andersen story), and although Kunze is dashing and of fine voice as the Prince, he looks much older in his 30s than Ariel, which is awkward as she is probably 16 going on 17, if that old.
If this returns to Broadway, it should please many with the technical wizardry and stunning, fantastical design. It might even have an outside shot at taking The Lion Kings throne, although that likely wont be vacated for a very long time.