"The Little Mermaid" finds her fins on Broadway

January 10, 2008 6:22:02 PM PST
You try singing and dancing while wearing a tail. More than a little difficult. Yet "The Little Mermaid" - tail intact - amiably swims along on good cheer and charm. The long-awaited stage version of the 1989 Disney animated film, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, may have a few uneasy moments shoehorning the story in between all that lavish, and some might say unnecessary, underwater spectacle.

Yet forget the overused and now cliche "theme-park" adjective. This musical, buoyed by one of the best Disney film scores and a delightful new leading lady, succeeds as enjoyable family entertainment. And, yes, the sets are big, but then, so is the ocean.

Julie Taymor's take on "The Lion King" - creating an astonishing theatrical landscape - set the bar pretty high for stage adaptations of Disney movies.

If director Francesca Zambello doesn't quite accomplish that same kind of amazing transformation here, she and her design team have found a viable way to make this remounting of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale seaworthy. And Disney has spent the money to back her up.

Zambello's division between water and land is accomplished through set designer George Tsypin's use of a translucent plastic. It suggests an exotic, ocean-deep world where actors portraying the finny folk glide around on shoes that have wheels on the back of them.

Chief among these creatures is a winsome mermaid named Ariel, who longs for a handsome, yet landlocked, prince. Can she find true love if she renounces life under the sea? Ariel, played by Sierra Boggess, is the latest in a series of spunky musical-comedy heroines - think about the young women in "Wicked" or "Legally Blonde" - who seek to overcome obstacles. In the end, she does, of course, find true love.

Boggess not only possesses a lovely voice, she can handle comedy, too. Humor slips sporadically into Doug Wright's efficient book which fills in some of the gaps in the film's story line. Most of the jokes are provided by Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula the sea witch, played as sort of a campy, water-logged Norma Desmond, with a bit of Mae West thrown in for good measure.

Scott is a marvelous comedian, yet she seems a bit lost in the garish makeup and an excess of costume, especially some unwieldily tentacles, designed by Tatiana Noginova. Still, she gets to sing the catchiest of the new musical numbers, "I Want the Good Times Back," aided by a pair of conniving eels who are played by Derrick Baskin and Tyler Maynard.

The flavorsome Broadway score includes the movie's songs, courtesy of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, most notably such hits as "Under the Sea," "Kiss the Girl" and "Part of Your World." They have been augmented with new work by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, a worthy successor to Ashman who died in 1991.

The rest of the cast is a strong assortment of Broadway regulars including Norm Lewis as Ariel's father, King Triton; Eddie Korbich as a tap-dancing seagull, and Tituss Burgess as that Caribbean-drenched crab Sebastian. And Sean Palmer manages to turn Prince Eric, Ariel's love interest, into something more than cardboard, no small achievement.

Choreographer Stephen Mear works overtime, providing a cascade of dances. Consider the calypso-tinged "Under the Sea," in which designer Tsypin has placed on stage two large rotating columns that look as if they are some kind of weird, space-age coral.

These columns provide the backdrop for Mear's most ambitious swirl of choreography, one in which those denizens of the deep get to demonstrate the kinetic quality of their life under water. It's an extravagant riot of color and movement that works particularly well in a theater.

Closely aligning a stage production to its popular cinematic source material is risky business. Look what happened to Broadway's "Young Frankenstein" and the comparisons made to the original - and more effective - Mel Brooks movie. That hasn't happened here. "The Little Mermaid" has found its own unique on-stage sea legs.