The Little Mermaid – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

When temperatures are at their highest and Arizona records are broken daily, there’s nothing better than being seated in a comfortable, air-conditioned building while waiting for a show to begin. The feel of that cold, icy breeze during a Saturday matinee in any valley theater is so welcome. But at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert, on opening weekend, that welcome feeling is doubly-so. Walking past the lobby into the house is like stepping into a chilled, underwater grotto; the entry ways are decorated as though they’re pathways to life under the sea.

This is the setting for Hale Centre’s new production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, running now until August 19. As with all productions at Gilbert’s theatre-in-the-round, the house itself is designed to be part of the set. Both the east and west side walls display a centered projection screen, framed by driftwood and decorated with either strands of a fisherman’s net or colorful seaweed, and both are flanked by two strip paintings of scenes familiar in style and color from the 1989 animated film; King Triton’s underwater kingdom is on one side, while Prince Eric’s castle by the shore hangs on the other. Even the stage floor is part of the overall design; it’s painted in an inviting, Mediterranean blue, while house lights from above shine down and subtly reflect on the surface, creating a watery illusion of an ocean moving calmly in slo-mo.

Once the underperformed, original Broadway production of The Little Mermaid closed in 2009, the show was revamped and redesigned for future regional productions. Much was changed. Director Glenn Casale altered the order of the songs, removed one, then introduced another. The character of Prince Eric’s housekeeper, Carlotta, was cut while the majority of her lines were given to the prince’s guardian, Grimsby, expanding his role considerably. This re-imagined version is the one presented at Hale Centre under Cambrian James’ direction, and while it doesn’t reflect the extravagance of the Broadway production and (for obvious, logistical reasons) omits much that was in the film, audiences shouldn’t care; this Little Mermaid is a family-audience charmer, ablaze in color and clever, theatre-in-the-round invention. In showbiz, timing is everything, and staging this fairytale musical during the summer when school is out and temperatures are constantly in the triple digits, timing could not be better.

After a shaky start, where due to technical issues, Ariel (Caelan Creaser) could neither be heard singing the opening lines to The World Above nor immediately seen observing things from the shoreline rocks, the show quickly caught up with both the recorded music and its mic and lighting problems.

The story as we know it from the animated feature is essentially the same: Ariel, one of several troublesome, teenage daughters to King Triton (a muscular Ben Mason; no painted-on abs here) remains fascinated with life above the sea and wants so much to be a part of that world. After rescuing the dashing young Prince Eric (Matt Krantz) from a watery doom, and realizing that she’s falling in love with him, she makes a deal with the devil – in this case, her villainous Aunt Ursula (a deliciously evil Melissa VanSlyke) – and surrenders her voice in order to be human and live on the surface, but it all comes at an unforeseen cost.

Characters create the illusion of floating under the sea by gliding around on those Heelys, the brand of roller shoes that allows the wearer to either roll or walk, depending upon how you shift the weight of your feet. It’s an effective theatrical movement, though, admittedly, some cast members were better at it than others; often there was the appearance of a sudden trip when a character should still be gliding as the sound of a shoe accidentally touching the floor with an abrupt skid could be heard, but the overall illusion of characters floating remained largely efficient throughout.

Also effective was the speed with which scenes changed above the sea. Being a theatre in-the-round, there are no sets or painted flats, just props to suggest settings and a carefully designed, atmospheric lighting plan. Tables, chairs, and podiums slide on with great efficiency, rarely pausing the flow or the rhythm of locations changed. Even the deck of a ship, complete with rigging, was speedily assembled during a scene fade, then disassembled with remarkable efficiency as the story moved on.

Plus, the production scores with its voices. From the robust sound of sailors singing of Fathoms Below to each of the solos, without exception, all cast members brought the songs alive with a vitality that in some cases sounded as fresh as the original, admittedly, helped to some degree by the professionally recorded music track. Highlights from the newer materiel includes the opener to Act 2 where Scuttle (a playful Raymond Barcelo, faintly channeling Jack Black) and his chorus of bespectacled tap-dancing seagulls try to raise Ariel’s down-in-the-dumps spirits by performing Positoovity for her. With each of their round-framed Harry Potter glasses, it’s like watching the feathery seabird version of the secretarial pool dance sequence from Hale Centre’s earlier production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. There’s also a fun, sixties style song, She’s In Love performed by six of King Triton’s daughters, looking as though The Shirelles had reformed and added a couple of extra members, plus one male voice, Flounder the guppy (Brandon Brown).

But the standouts are the high-spirited Under The Sea and the tender Kiss The Girl, both presented with a kaleidoscopic array of color and creativity, and both lead by Sebastian, the Caribbean red crab (a hugely effective Vinny Chavez) where the undersea world joins the royal court composer in creating two of the most memorable production numbers you’re ever likely to see at Hale. With a collection of dancing jelly fish, guppies, dolphins, turtles, bouncing frogs, and more, both musical sequences quickly become reminiscent of Julie Taymor’s style of animal designs for The Lion King; the fluorescent, aquatic version.

New to Hale Centre’s stage is Matt Krantz as the dashing Prince Eric, whose new solos, Her Voice and One Step Closer, are both fine examples of songs well sung. But rather than playing a lead, with his clean-cut looks and that friendly guy-next-door persona, Krantz would be more effective when cast as a hero’s best friend. Here, he’s no more a teen idol type than Triton’s daughters are teenagers.

But once again, returning to Hale after an impressive debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caelan Creaser triumphs a second time in the way she did as that eager-to-please flapper back in March of this year, and for all the same reasons. With a clarity of voice and a natural, theatrical presence, her Ariel may appear just a few years older than a character that would suffer from ‘teenage hormones,’ as the wicked Ursula phrased it, but you can’t help but be drawn to her or her exuberance. Even though the show has her mute for a good chunk of the second half, the new score still gives her songs to be sung as though we’re hearing her thoughts, and that’s to the show and this production’s advantage.

Though perhaps the final word should be with Jason M. Hammond’s Grimsby. As mentioned earlier, now possessing lines that once belonged to Carlotta that resulted with a considerably expanded role, in a fairytale world where all characters are colorfully larger than life, Hammond has managed to make Grimsby surprisingly real. His concern for Ariel comes across as authentic, even touching, and while there are no life lessons of any serious nature intended to be learned from The Little Mermaid, when he states, “The secret to happiness, child; we shouldn’t wish for impossible things,” it comes across as a logical, unexpected truth; something to ponder as you head back out into the summer heat.

Pictures from Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

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