Disney’s The Little Mermaid – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

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The fun for families, particularly children, when watching Arizona Broadway Theatre’s colorful and expansive musical version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid extends way beyond the stage.

For the Peoria dinner theatre, all productions usually begin and end in the lobby where the theme of any given production is often highlighted with some theatrically connected artifacts in one way or another.  It all adds to the atmosphere of the show.  With The Little Mermaid, entering the ABT building is not unlike entering a Disney theatre in one of the theme parks.  The lobby is decorated with undersea backdrops, netting, and articles retrieved from sunken ships, and in one particularly nice design, as you hand your ticket over, it’s as if you’ve stepped into a small, undersea labyrinth, populated by theatre ushers.  Then you enter the house.

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Throughout your meal as you decide between “Flounder’s Tomato Bisque” or “Scuttle’s Salad” – there’s even Fish & Chips on the menu – the reflective ocean from the curtain drop bathes the theatre in blue.  Even before the show begins, children will love it.  It gives the feel of having spent a magical day in Disneyland and now the evening meal and entertainment is about to begin, and we’re already under the sea.

As for the show itself, the version now licensed for regional theatres is not quite the one that played on Broadway.  Despite running for over a year, the elaborate production never quite took off in the way Disney had hoped.  A new, redesigned show that ran on the continent with alterations to the undersea style of character movements, some trims here and there and some song changes has become the standard style of presentation, and it’s this somewhat revamped show that has now become the official version.

With some changes from the film that might have proved too challenging, or perhaps simply too busy for the stage, Prince Eric (Patton Chandler with perfectly appropriate boyish good looks) doesn’t fall overboard or become rescued by Ariel (a totally engaging Jill-Christine Wiley), there are no shark chases, and the evil Ursula (Cassandra Norville Klaphake relishing every moment of her cartoon villainy) doesn’t grow to grotesque proportions during the climactic confrontation, though in one neat effect, her octopus-like tentacles become monstrously huge, enveloping King Triton ( a commanding Mark DiConzo) and keeping him prisoner within her grasp.

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The good news, particularly for younger theatre-goers who probably have no interest in new creative or artistic additions, will find that things flow pretty much in the same way as they did in the animated feature with little ambition to develop further.  Unlike Beauty and the Beast or the more theatrically elaborate The Lion King, as it now stands, the most effective forum for Disney’s The Little Mermaid is not Broadway but regional, and when seen through this prism your enjoyment should increase substantially.

Technically, ABT does great things.  With wires and good use of Paul A. Black’s scenic and lighting design, the theatrical illusion of being undersea is nicely achieved.  Particularly effective is the moment when Ariel spirals up to the ocean’s surface like an aerial acrobat as her mermaid’s tail falls off and legs are revealed.  The toady eels Flotsam and Jetsam (Tyler J. Gasper and Joey Anchondo) expertly glide along the stage on foot wheelies creating the illusion of slithering on the ocean floor while Scuttle the seagull (Gerard Lanzerotti, sounding less Buddy Hackett and more Gilbert Gottfried) flies around above the ocean like a clumsy Peter Pan who can’t quite get the landing procedure right.  Also, Tim Shawyer’s Grimsby, guardian to the prince, is appropriately fussy and funny, who, with his period white wig and costume, echoes Hugh Laurie as he appeared in TV’s Blackadder.  There’s also great support throughout from a large ensemble doubling as crowds, various undersea mer-people and King Triton’s daughters, plus a gathering of local school children, all of whom appear to have found their inner Nemo. The part of Flounder, Ariel’s young guppy friend, is played by not one but four actors who will rotate the role on alternating nights.

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Under the leadership of music director Mark 4Man, the band is this time around particularly outstanding with keyboard arrangements creating the impression of a full blown orchestra, while Kurtis W. Overby’s choreography and staging brings the two big numbers, Under The Sea and Kiss The Girl to memorable life.

Coupled with the colorful, imaginative costumes of sea horses, jelly fish, snails and various other undersea creatures, Under the Sea, lead by the excellent voice of Aaron Ronelle’s Sebastian the crab (who actually looks more like a walking lobster, resplendent in red) the illusion of some aquatic, crowd-pleasing Mardi Gras is achieved.  Special note also to Greg Kalafatas as the exceptionally rotund Chef Louis in a funny scene where the kitchen dweller becomes a psychotic killer while singing Les Poissons.  He does what mothers have told every child throughout history never to do: he plays with his food.  Ironically, the song’s speeded reprise echoes more Beauty and the Beast’s Be Our Guest than The Little Mermaid.

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Director Kiel Klaphake’s stage direction is assured for most of the production, though given Doug Wright’s new theatrical book, even Kiel can’t make the climactic conflicts work as well as they should.  Ursula’s booming voice interrupts the all important kiss between Ariel and the prince, yet with nothing to see, the clunky staging of having characters stand around, listening, looking as though they’re wondering what they should do next, is treading incoherent, murky waters at best.

But ultimately, The Little Mermaid ends on that upbeat, colorful conclusion that will have youngsters leaving the theatre with thoughts of mermaids, prince and princesses and all kinds of magical looking creatures swimming in their heads, kicking off the family summer in grand, theatrical style.  And in case you think that the show’s finale ends the evening, hold that thought.  All those artifacts in the lobby suddenly become backdrops to photo opportunities with the cast.  In the way that Disney characters at the theme parks meet and greet patrons for pictures, so, too, do the cast of ABT.  After having a picture taken with Ariel and Prince Eric, or maybe cowering in a shot with Ursula, you’ll feel as though you’ve spent the day in the Magic Kingdom but at ABT prices, and from a child’s perspective, no theatre in town can beat value like that.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.

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