REVIEW: U-M makes the most of flawed stage adaptation of ‘Disney’s The Little Mermaid’

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Halli Toland and Trevor Carr in the Department of Musical Theatre’s production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

Since the release of Disney’s 1989 animated movie musical, “The Little Mermaid,” feminist moms have found themselves in a bind: it’s nearly impossible to resist Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s witty, charming score; but the story – with its heroine who sacrifices her voice and mermaid identity for a cute guy with whom she’s never even conversed (and then she must somehow earn his love without speaking) – sends some pretty problematic messages, to say the least.

The stage musical adaptation of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” recently staged by U-M’s musical theater department, admirably tries to take direct aim at these issues, with mixed results. Book writer Doug Wright, accompanied by Ashman and Menken’s original score, with additional lyrics by Glenn Slater, invests more scenes and numbers to the courtship of mute Ariel (Halli Toland) and Prince Eric (Trevor Carr), including “One Step Closer,” in which Eric insists, “Who needs words? Dancing beats small talk any day.”

Um … while I appreciate the sentiment and effort – and adore musicals to boot – even I can’t really buy into this. Especially when the male speaker, who can talk, holds all the power.

Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, of course, tells the story of King Triton’s (Jordan Samuels) youngest daughter, Ariel, who has a beautiful singing voice and a burning curiosity about the human world. When a storm causes Prince Eric to nearly drown, Ariel saves him, and Triton punishes her for going to the surface again. But Triton’s sister, Ursula the Sea Witch (Sarah Lynn Marion), offers Ariel the chance to be with Eric: she must sacrifice her voice for human legs, and if she can get him to fall for her in three days, she’ll stay human; if she fails, her soul belongs to Ursula.

Linda Goodrich directed and choreographed U-M’s two and a half hour production, and those who have seen her work in the past will be unsurprised to hear that “Mermaid”’s numbers were generally dynamic and sharply executed. “Under the Sea” is the showpiece, of course, with George Bacon’s colorful, imaginative costume designs on joyous display. (The jellyfish were my favorite.) Cynthia Kortman Westphal, meanwhile, was the show’s music director, and the vocals (and the orchestra) sounded terrific and well-balanced.

J Branson’s scenic design largely consisted of set pieces (Triton’s throne, a boat, Ursula’s lair, etc.) that could be moved onto the stage, and these worked in concert with Janak Jha’s atmospheric lighting design to create distinct worlds above and below the water line.

Toland anchored the show admirably, with clear, powerful vocals and a bright-eyed, eager earnestness fitting for the character. (This was on best display at the start of the second act, as Ariel mutely experiences wonder at her new body and grows accustomed to her legs.) Plus, because the show’s creators obviously determined that they couldn’t have Ariel stay silent for act two, we hear Ariel’s thoughts through song when other characters aren’t around. (This confused my five year old, however, who kept whispering to me, “But I thought she lost her voice!”)

Marion was a bewitching powerhouse of a villainess, gloriously decked out with tentacles by Bacon (and a fright wig and terrific makeup by Whitney Mueller); and Barrett Riggins as Scuttle, the confidently misinformed seagull, threatened to steal nearly every scene in which he appeared.

Yet overall, as show adaptations go, “Little Mermaid” is, well, disappointingly flat-footed. Goodrich and her team did pretty much all that can be done with the material, but Menken and Slater’s new, forgettable songs never come close to living up to the film’s original score. While they’re meant to expand on the original tale, they instead make the show feel bloated and labored.

But perhaps even more than that, the bottom line is that it’s really tough to take an airy, whimsical animated feature and re-cast the story in our gravity-bound world without making it feel leaden. There’s a reason some stories are best told via animation, and maybe – stay with me now – not every movie with a great score should be made into a stage musical.

I’d argue that “The Little Mermaid” may be a case in point.

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