By Bill Beard
This little gal has been swimming/walking around screens and stages for years! Since 1989 in fact, when the original Disney animated film first appeared. Based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale first printed in 1836, The Little Mermaid has found life in various forms: film, television and live theatre, since that Disney movie first captured the hearts of children….and adults…all over the world. It was so loved that Disney made a sequel in 2000, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, and a prequel in 2008, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning. In all three of these films, the voice of Ariel was created by Rockford’s own Jodi Benson.
So when Disney decided that Broadway was the next big step for its popular animated films, and when they reaped such rich rewards for the first few, especially Beauty and the Beast (1994), The Lion King (1997) and Mary Poppins (2006), it was only natural to tackle something even more challenging, like the adapting of an ‘underwater’ animation onto the live stage; and The Little Mermaid was spawned.
Let me immediately proclaim that I absolutely loved this production. Also, and I hesitate to admit this, that I had never before seen this show….no, not even the film! So I entered the theatre…and the world of King Triton…with no pre-conceived expectations. The Paramount’s pre-opening publicity had offered some exciting press releases and some beautiful photos, and I was up for an exhilarating evening in Aurora‘s prized historic theatre.
Oh, I confess to having checked back to the New York critics of the Broadway opening. Some mixed reviews, but I definitely tried to ignore the scathing appraisal of the New York Times’ infamous Ben Brantley, who referred to it as “Disney‘s charm-free adaptation…”; “…a musical blunderbuss”; “…feels like less than two dimensions”; “…in that sparkly garishness that only a very young child, or possibly a tackiness-worshipping drag queen, might find pretty”!
But why should I limit my pre-show expectations to the opinion of “one dyspeptic scribe”? After all, I had complete faith that the Paramount’s President, Tim Rater, and Artistic Director, Jim Corti, would come through as always. And they certainly did.
The first brilliant choice they made was the talented Amber Mak as Director-Choreographer. Ms. Mak has been a power house with the Paramount since she became their New Works Development Director. I loved her production of Hairspray earlier in the season. Excellent. But The Little Mermaid is quite another challenge. “How do you create an under water world on stage? How do you bring to life sea animals and mystical characters?” Well, Ms. Mak answered her own questions: “…with the superpower that is the imagination”!
In this case, Director Mak shared her own vision with the superb imaginations of a powerful staff of other gifted artists: the always innovative costumer, Theresa Ham, and the ingenious creator of puppets, Jesse Mooney-Bullock, whose fantastic “creatures“ would so beautifully populate the magnificent fantasy aquarium stage fashioned by Scenic Designer Jeffrey Kmiec, and vividly envisioned by Lighting Designer Jesse Klug and Projection Designer Mike Tutaj. The overall visual success of this shows relies completely on the combination of these outstanding talents.
The plot revolves around Ariel, the youngest of King Triton’s seven daughters, who dreams of finding out what it would be like to live as “part of the world” on land; and when she saves a handsome sailor from drowning, but cannot reveal herself, she determines to realize her dream. She bargains with Ursala, the wicked Sea Witch, to exchange her beautiful voice for an opportunity to have her mermaid tail turned into feet, so she can run away to find her prince. She is accompanied by her faithful servant, Sebastian the crab, and her friend, Flounder. A wonderfully eventful plot ensues, but to follow it may require renting the original film, or far better yet, get yourself down to the Paramount and see this purely delightful musical.
But certainly the key to the character fun lies in the inventive puppets created by Mr. Mooney-Bullock. Puppets have been used in various ways in various Broadway shows, and certainly by Disney, a la The Lion King. But here each puppet is “manned”, manipulated…and voiced….by its actor, the two combining to become one entity, the “character”.
The ensemble consists of a marvelous array of sea creatures, exotic fish, coral, sea gulls….you name it! And each one is a marvelous puppet, carried or “worn” by an actor or dancer, subtly costumed and manipulating the puppet to appear natural.
The most impressive treatment is for Ursala, played by the splendid Christina Hall. Her austere black costume includes eight enormous flexible tentacles, hanging and flowing around her, manipulated by four black-hooded, low swirling dancers creating very life-like movements with the tentacles, but drawing almost no attention to themselves. And always at her side are her two minions, the electric eel-like Flotsam and Jetsam, marvelously handled by Adam Fane and John Adam Keating. The overall effect is astounding. And in addition to the visual, these three characters have two of the best songs. Flotsam and Jetsam have a great number called “Sweet Child”; but Ursala has the definite show stopper, “Poor Unfortunate Souls“, which is a fantastic finale for Act I, and is reprised to become the last big moment of Act II.
The young lovers are wonderful. Kari Yancy comes to Paramount from Ivins, Utah, where she has starred in several productions in the enormous outdoor Tuacahn Amphitheatre, including Ariel in The Little Mermaid. She brings a lovely soprano voice, perfect for the major numbers, “The World Above” and “Part of Your World”.
Prince Eric is played by a Chicago favorite, Devin Desantis. I have admired his versatility for several years around the city, in particular his roles in Mamma Mia and Hairspray at the Paramount.
John Butler-Duplessis does a super job as Sebastian (the clam). In fact, Sebastian the puppet suffered somewhat as one of the lesser distinctive designs, but I finally realized that it was because Mr. Butler-Duplessis was such a darned good actor. Young Ricky Falbo as Flounder deserved a more distinctive puppet as well.
Michael Ehlers was wonderfully ruffled as Scuttle, the Gull; and when joined by his fellow gulls (Aaron Patrick Craven, Anthony Sullivan, Jr., and J. Tyler Whitmer), their opening of Act II tap number, “Positoovity”, was terrific.
Evan Tyrone Martin was impressively powerful as King Triton, perhaps somewhat too strident at times, but convincingly regal.
The surprise highlight of the evening was from a favorite Chicago actor, George Keating, who switched from the sophisticated Grimsby, guardian to Prince Eric, to the flamboyant French Chef Louis, for the show-stopping “Les Poissons” production number. His comedic sense of style and controlled caricature was absolutely on target.
Let me assure you Stateline theatre goers that this is a fabulous family show!
It is one of the most imaginative, innovative production concepts I have ever recommended. It plays through January 15, and the drive down I-39 and I-88 to Aurora is straight and easy. It would be a great holiday outing for the whole family. Go!
For information call 630-896-6666 or visit paramountaurora.com.