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‘Mermaid’ faces tough swim to NY

Expectations are high for Disney's latest

For Disney Theatrical Prods., the hardest part of “The Little Mermaid” isn’t creating the story’s fishbowl-like setting.

It’s the fact that the intricate show is being created in a figurative fishbowl, under intense industry scrutiny.

The stage adaptation of the toon, which begins its Denver tryout July 26 before arriving on Broadway in November, has a no-water, no-wires approach to telling the story of a mermaid who longs to live on land. The concept has remained basically unchanged from helmer Francesca Zambello’s initial pitch, so it would seem the onstage rendering of submarine life is well in hand.

But because Disney has made such a legit splash in the past decade and because “Mermaid” arrives at a time of major changes for its other Broadway offerings, the new tuner is the object of keen attention in the industry. And Disney is well aware of it.

“The challenge is being able to give everybody on the show — the cast, the creative team, all of us — the space to do the work, when we all know that because of what the material is, and because of Disney, everybody’s watching,” says Disney Theatrical producer Thomas Schumacher.

A year ago, it looked like Disney would have an astonishing five shows on the Broadway boards at once, with “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Tarzan” up and running, plus “Mary Poppins” bowing in fall 2006 ahead of the announced berth of “Mermaid.”

“Tarzan,” however, proved a box office disappointment and shuttered July 8 after 15 months. And Disney execs decided 13-year-old “Beauty and the Beast” had run its course: The tuner, whose weekly receipts have shot back up over a million dollars in the show’s final weeks, closes July 29. (“Mermaid” will fill the vacancy at the Lunt-Fontanne, the home of “Beauty” for the past eight years.)

“I think with ‘Beauty’ closing, we’ll have a really solid mix of three shows on Broadway,” says Disney Theatrical chief financial officer David Schrader.

“Mermaid” seems a strong bet. The much-loved 1989 pic played a major role in the revitalization of Disney animation, and kicked off a string of animated hits including “Beauty” (1991) and “Lion King” (1994). It also features a catchy score from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, two legit vets (“Little Shop of Horrors”) who went on to co-write tunes for “Beauty” and “Aladdin.”

Still, this retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fable, a large portion of which takes place underwater, isn’t the easiest to translate to the stage. An earlier attempt at a stage version, which was to have been helmed by Matthew Bourne (“Swan Lake”), was initiated and then abandoned.

“We’d done a little bit of designing, a little modeling. We’d done a draft of the script,” Schumacher says. “Ultimately, Matthew’s approach, what we wanted to do, the time we had — everything was conspiring against us.” (Bourne went on to co-direct and choreograph “Poppins.”)

Zambello, a director known primarily for opera before she began to work more frequently in musical theater, has been attached to “Mermaid” for three years. (She is involved with developing tuner adaptations of “Little House on the Prairie” and “The First Wives Club,” and helmed a musical adaptation of “Rebecca” in Germany last year, but “Mermaid” will be her first Broadway experience.) She has helmed a couple of workshops for Disney, and directed an “Aladdin” production for the theme parks.

Zambello’s approach to “Mermaid” convinced Disney to give a stage version another go.

“I want to keep it very jewel-like, with a lot of translucent sculpture,” Zambello says. “And no water, no wire, no flying. Nothing like that.”

The set was designed by George Tsypin, a sculptor and designer with whom Zambello has collaborated previously. The colored, translucent scenic elements are covered with a special coating to reduce reflection from the stage lights by Natasha Katz.

Also integral to the physical production is its representation of underwater movement, accomplished for several characters with specially designed, wheeled shoes that resemble the tween tennis-shoe fad Heelys. Stephen Mear, co-choreographer of “Poppins,” choreographs “Mermaid” while costume designer Tatiana Noginova, another opera vet, provides the fishy costumes.

There’s also the matter of filling out the story and score. The movie runs only 83 minutes and includes about half a dozen full songs, among them “Kiss the Girl” and the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea.”

For the legit version, Menken has composed 11 new tunes with lyricist Glenn Slater. (Ashman died in 1991.) Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife,” “Grey Gardens”) wrote the book.

“A lot of Disney pieces have a great connection to myth,” Zambello says. “With Doug, we mined all of that and expanded it.”

According to Zambello, the book delves further into the relationship between mermaid Ariel (newcomer Sierra Boggess) and father Triton (Norm Lewis), the rivalry between Triton and his sorceress sister Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott) and the depiction of the human world.

Disney keeps mum about budget numbers, but Schumacher acknowledges “Mermaid” isn’t cheap, with capitalization costs including the out-of-town tryout along with early prototypes of major scenic elements.

“We’re right in line with anybody who’s as big a show as we are,” Schumacher says.

The production’s Rialto advance sales are said to have passed $8 million. But for now, Disney is holding off on a major advertising push while it develops in Denver. That’s part of the strategy to fend off unwanted attention until “Mermaid” is fully seaworthy.

Reviews for the Denver run will hit after the official press opening there, Aug. 23. After the Denver engagement closes Sept. 9, Gotham previews begin Nov. 3 for a Dec. 6 opening.

Still, it’ll be tough to deflect attention from a new adaptation of a familiar movie, produced by a corporation with a major presence on Broadway and a number of hits to its credit.

“Of course people have expectations,” Schumacher says. “When we went to Minneapolis with ‘Lion King,’ nobody even noticed. Now websites talk about us.”

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