Flying fishtails! Well, not exactly. Instead, the singing sirens of “The Little Mermaid” glide about on Heelys, their arms whirling in faux balletic motion, occasionally accompanied by the thwack of an errant fin or tail punishing some hapless ensemble member. If those figures sound more like Ice Capades refugees than the enchanting inhabitants of a persuasively rendered, magical underwater kingdom, then that’s part of the problem with Disney’s latest bid for Broadway residency. The massive brand power of the beloved 1989 animated feature might make disappointment over the show’s diluted charms irrelevant. But the impression remains that this is a case of winning material hitched to the wrong creative team.
The musical has been somewhat improved since its Denver tryout last summer, with producers making use of the additional time when the planned December New York opening was delayed by the Broadway stagehands strike. Some — but by no means all — of the visual clutter has been stripped back, some of the more mystifying costumes have acquired a little definition, and the show makes considerable gains in intimacy, framed by the Lunt-Fontanne stage.
That theater was home — during most of its 13-year New York run — to “Beauty and the Beast,” the first of the Disney screen-to-stage confections to hit Broadway, which prospered despite a tepid critical welcome and a pedigree owing more to theme-park entertainment than musical theater. While the ambitions of Disney’s theatrical division have evolved since then in the artistically groundbreaking wake of “The Lion King,” “Mermaid” is in many ways an Anaheim throwback.
Although shaped by lead creatives versed in the high-art world of opera — director Francesca Zambello, set designer George Tsypin and costumer Tatiana Noginova — this is a show of chiefly juvenile distractions. Stronger on color than design cohesion, its gaudy kitsch has neither the dazzling stagecraft of “Lion King” nor the impressive scale and storybook quaintness of “Mary Poppins.”
Sierra Boggess’ Ariel is a perfectly lovely, vocally accomplished lead, but Doug Wright’s book somehow loses the fundamental quality that made Disney’s update of the Hans Christian Andersen tale so captivating onscreen — the mermaid who longs to be human and join her true love on land has traded plucky, independent spirit for generic sweetness.
No less deprived of personality despite an expanded role here is her inamorato, Prince Eric (Sean Palmer), a chiseled hunk given a couple of drippy numbers. (Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s mostly unmemorable new songs supplement the handful of enduring originals by Menken and the late Howard Ashman.)
In a deadpan turn from Sherie Rene Scott decked out in Noginova’s tentacled Elizabethan squid skirt and a stunner of a platinum Medusa wig, sea witch Ursula makes a more vibrant impression. She sparks up the action with “I Want the Good Times Back,” a Vegas-style ode to the mean old days before she was banished by her brother King Triton (Norm Lewis, a hot merdaddy with silver tresses and ripped torso).
But even in the seemingly failsafe area of the campy villainess, Wright’s book falters. Ursula doesn’t match the gleeful treachery of her screen counterpart, who was right up there with Cruella De Vil on the evil-ometer. And Scott — flanked by reptile-like eels Flotsam (Tyler Maynard) and Jetsam (Derrick Baskin) — often struggles with intended zingers that fall flat.
Sebastian (Tituss Burgess), the aggressively unendearing Caribbean crab, looks less like a crustacean than a creepy Leigh Bowery creation, while tap-dance supremo Eddie Korbich is saddled with the show’s ugliest costume and two thankless comic numbers as seagull Scuttle.
An addition to the principal cast since Denver, Brian D’Addario (fresh from the “Les Miserables” revival and alternating with three other tykes) brings new verve to the role of Ariel’s fish pal Flounder and big-voiced appeal to “She’s in Love,” a catchy, ’60s-style number he shares with the mersisters.
But individual characters generally come and go without fostering much of a connection, and the 2½-hour story feels bloated, with Wright’s book lacking the clarity and concision of the 83-minute movie. Zambello’s sluggish direction doesn’t help. A show in which fluid movement should be a prime factor is too often static, notably in Boggess’ gorgeously sung “Part of Your World.” The stand-and-deliver approach to many of the songs (unaided by Stephen Mear’s routine choreography) leaves the characters looking constricted when they should be soaring or striving.
The two key numbers that were messes in Denver, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” have been rendered less chaotic but still suffer from Tsypin’s unattractively abstract imagery and Noginova’s fussy designs, occasional exceptions like the voluptuous jellyfish costumes notwithstanding.
Prince Eric’s ship is interestingly stylized and the transitions between above and below the ocean’s surface are deftly negotiated. But the three central elements that recur in slight variations — two giant Cirque du Soleil-esque corkscrew towers with movable arms that open into twirling carousels, and a huge sunburst/chandelier that looks like a Christmas tree topper — are particularly cumbersome, reducing the big production numbers to crowded processions.
The overall effect is that of a department store holiday window conjured by some display queen with artistic pretensions and a plastic fetish — rarely of a mysterious world fathoms below. Only when Tsypin’s Plexiglass sculptures are cleared and descriptive detail is left largely to Natasha Katz’s bewitching lighting and Sven Ortel’s video effects does something enchanting begin to happen.
That might not matter to girls eager to lose themselves in Ariel’s princess journey, or to generations looking to revisit a film that cast its spell over them as children, so the Lunt-Fontanne likely will have a tenant for some time to come. But it’s a missed opportunity in that one of Disney’s strongest properties never comes close to repeating its transporting experience onscreen.