There are lots of questions to ponder while being otherwise unengaged by Disney’s new stage version of “The Little Mermaid.” How can a merman and a squid be brother and sister? When the ocean’s surface and the depths below are so clearly delineated, why does the ship float in the night sky? If the sea witch is so powerful, how is she so easily dispatched? How does King Triton maintain those abs? What are those giant baroque corkscrews that keep appearing? And while we’re on that track, did no one at any point worry that the designs for this show are just plain ugly?
While director Francesca Zambello is new to Broadway, her opera and musical productions elsewhere have been lauded for their balance of spectacle with emotional detail. But by choosing frequent opera-world collaborators, set designer George Tsypin and costumer Tatiana Noginova, Zambello has allowed emotion, charm and enchantment to be drowned in a sea of bewilderingly over-stylized designs.
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In a musical for which children are the primary audience, clarity of representation is fundamental. But in the magical underwater kingdom that beautiful young mermaid Ariel (Sierra Boggess) longs to leave behind to marry the human prince (Sean Palmer), we often require explanation to know what we’re looking at.
We suppose the kid with the faux-hawk in the yellow sack (J.J. Singleton, alternating with Cody Hanford) is a flounder because that’s what people call him. We believe the guy in the red tail suit and hat (Tituss Burgess) is a crab because he says so. Even though they resemble land reptiles out of “Seascape,” the eels (Tyler Maynard and Derrick Baskin) are helpfully identified as such. And despite an outfit that looks like Patricia Field playing a joke on Sarah Jessica Parker, we know Scuttle (Eddie Korbich) is a seagull because he sings about “gull ability.” As for the random Mardi Gras revelers whizzing all over the stage on Heelys, I guess the fact they’re singing “Under the Sea” would make them fish.
While some imaginative work is required of the audience to ignore the skirts and focus on the tails, the mermaids at least look like mermaids.
Then there are Tsypin’s bizarrely alienating Plexiglass stage-scapes, overhung by giant disks that look like Christmas decorations but serve as the sun, the moon, a chandelier that could be an alien spacecraft and some unidentifiable marine orb. All this visual incoherence, plus some not always useful elaboration of a simple, disarming storyline, make what should have been a slam-dunk for stage presentation a waterlogged misstep.
One of the most beloved of Disney’s modern animated features, “Mermaid” was the turning point after a long fallow period for the sector. Having elevated animation to an art form and produced a formidable string of popular classics through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the Mouse House’s toon division slipped into workmanlike mode in the late ’70s and ’80s.
With its catchy songs, its plucky, independent-minded heroine, its irresistibly campy villainess and a happy ending far more accessible and uplifting than Hans Christian Andersen’s ethereal original, “Mermaid” single-handedly changed all that.
The $211 million worldwide gross from its 1989 release and 1997-98 reissue, not to mention massive home-entertainment revenues, put animation back on studios’ radars, kickstarting a renaissance for the form that carried through the arrival of computer animation. Additionally, “Mermaid” came along at a time when the movie musical had become genre non grata; it showed that a narrative partly driven by songs could still work, an achievement recognized in its Oscars for original song and score.
That history, and the affection of multiple audience generations, gives Disney a potent new brand to add to its family-friendly theatrical stable. In a neat exchange, when “Mermaid” takes up residence in New York at the Lunt-Fontanne — beginning previews Nov. 3 for a Dec. 6 opening — it replaces “Beauty and the Beast,” another show with songs by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, based on the movie that consolidated the animation rebirth.
But that’s where the symmetry ends. Quaint and clunky as it was, in the theme-park style that predated Disney’s explosion into more stylistically adventurous territory with “The Lion King,” “Beauty” told its fairytale story cleanly and efficiently.
Doug Wright’s book for “Mermaid” joins the dots well enough but it constantly struggles against the visual conception, which distracts from the story’s essence and makes it hard for the audience to lose themselves in the underwater environment. Wright’s work in “I Am My Own Wife” and “Grey Gardens” showed his connection to maverick personalities, so this tale about letting children step out into the world, make mistakes and follow their own path should be a good fit. Yet, that comes through only perfunctorily, despite Boggess’ committed performance and crystalline vocals. And much of the humor falls flat.
What’s surprising is how underwhelming the movie’s most delightful numbers are here. The joyous calypso frolic “Under the Sea” and gloriously romantic “Kiss the Girl” are wonderful songs but Zambello has compromised both with chaotic presentation, not helped by Stephen Mear’s uninteresting choreography. (“Under the Sea” would have been a more obvious scene-setting opener than the ho-hum sea chanty “Fathoms Below,” expanded from a few throwaway bars in the film.) “Part of Your World” fares better despite Boggess being stuck in a plastic cave for most of it.
Aside from some neat transitions early on between above and below sea, the show generally is most persuasive when Tsypin’s clutter is cleared away, leaving the gorgeous color palette and delicate strokes of Natasha Katz’s lighting to take the descriptive lead. Despite Zambello’s much-quoted creative choice of “no water, no wires,” it’s the simple wire work of Prince Eric’s near-drowning in the storm or Ariel’s underwater transformation from mermaid to human that come closest to engendering a sense of wonderment.
Among the better new songs penned by Menken and Glenn Slater, “Her Voice” gives Palmer’s standard-issue dreamboat prince a yearning anthem to match Ariel’s “Part of Your World”; Korbich leads a fun bunch of tap-dancing seagulls in “Positoovity”; the Mersisters do an exuberant girl-group riff in “She’s in Love”; and scheming sea witch Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott), who offers Ariel human transformation in exchange for her voice, vamps about the evil old days before she was banished in “I Want the Good Times Back.”
Somewhat different from the film Ursula (a cross between Mae West, Divine and Bea Arthur), Scott creates the most fully formed character. She deadpans her cutting remarks with casual aplomb and brings venomous relish to “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” A voluptuous hourglass figure with blond Medusa locks and eight moving tentacles that form an Elizabethan skirt, her costume is one of Noginova’s more successful contributions.
Rest of the cast acquit themselves fine though the material, as reconceived for the stage, is simply not nuanced enough to allow any performer to emerge. As Sebastian the Caribbean crustacean, Burgess skirts uncomfortably close to minstrelsy and might want to tone down the mugging a notch. Norm Lewis is underused as King Triton, his impressive gym results getting more exposure than his mellifluous baritone. John Treacy Egan injects comedy as Chef Louis, rhapsodizing about “Les Poissons.”
As for “Mermaid’s” Broadway prospects, the strength of the property might help it stay afloat awhile, especially with tourist traffic. But if Disney Theatrical chief Thomas Schumacher’s aim in enlisting Zambello and team was to develop another eye-popping theatrical event to transcend the kid-fare label, he needs to keep fishing.