The almost month-long strike by the stagehands union led to a postponement of the official opening of this latest venture on Broadway by Disney Theatrical Productions. Extended previews have undoubtedly helped insure that a slick and polished show might surface (no pun intended) and without the flaws reported during its Denver break-in last August. Some are still in evidence, but the show happily doesn’t necessarily sink under the weight of them.
Little girls with parents generous and rich enough to lay out $121.50 for a good seat will undoubtedly take delight in this new stage version of the 1989 cartoon feature. Others may have to be merely tolerant of the silly and facetious goings-on and the deliriously surreal extravagance with which it is being presented.
I had to laugh to myself at the sight of mermaids with legs and a fishtail gliding about in Heelys (shoes with rollers on the heels). The glittery two-piece costumes with seashell bras are something to behold. Costume designer Tatiana Noginova must have had a field day designing haute couture fish-wear (But where were the fishnet stockings?). Did she not think that perhaps one piece costumes with gossamer tops would have been more attractive, or at least less evocative of a Las Vegas girlie show? But then mermaids in Las Vegas would be even more realistically seen topless.
The show is directed by Francesca Zambello, who has an eye for spectacle. But she appears to be an artist out of her depth trying to devise a cohesive and coherent plan to compliment the basic story that the Disney collaborators based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The musical is awash in eye-catching distractions that compete with the players for our attention. George Tsypin’s settings are an ingenious array of Plexiglass waves and huge mobile corkscrew-like sculptures that glide, move, and define by their looming presence both the iridescent undersea kingdom (with gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz) and the world above.
The musical’s bouncy and charming original score by Alan Menken (music) and the late Howard Ashman (lyrics) has been keenly augmented with more songs by Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. These nicely support the bubbly romantic pursuit of Ariel (Sierra Boggess), a rebellious mermaid in her quest to marry a prince and discover the world beyond the watery one governed by her autocratic father, King Triton (played with abs to envy by Norm Lewis). The lovely Boggess has a clear silvery soprano and performs with a beguilingly bright and spunky energy. Sean Palmer’s voice complements his dashing figure as Prince Eric, who immediately falls in love upon hearing Ariel’s voice while at sea.
There is no question that the fantastical design of the show takes precedence over the merely serviceable book by Doug Wright. It was definitely an adventurous move to assign the task of fleshing out the characters and fielding the plot to Wright – the same Wright who wrote the sophisticated book for "Grey Gardens" and for the stunning "I Am My Own Wife." While some wisps of wit and honest feelings seep into the libretto from time to time, the dialogue and the relationships rely heavily on the mix of corny kitsch/mock sincerity that these days is the essence of too many entertainments geared for children. This concession to modern sensibilities works to the advantage of Eddie Korbich, who plays a giddy seagull (wearing the show’s funniest costume) and Tituss Burgess, who plays a Caribbean Crab. Korbich, who has a jubilant time tapping away to "Positoovity," with a chorus line of tapping gulls, and Burgess, who disarms us with his Jamaican jabbering, generate plenty of laughs and easily win audience approval.
Another audience favorite was Trevor Braun (one of four boys who alternate in the role) as Flounder. He makes a notable splash, along with a bevy of "Mersisters" who emulate a pop girl group, singing "She’s in Love." Sherie Rene Scott is a hoot as Ursula the villainous and vindictive sea witch cum femme fatale octopus who cons her niece Ariel into sacrificing her voice for a mortal body. Encased in a hilariously restrictive costume with eight twitching tentacles and a headdress of Medusa curls, she wiggles and waddles through the vaudevillian homage "I Want the Good Times Back" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls." More villainy comes with Ursala’s flunkies, Flotsam and Jetsam, a pair of electrified eels (Tyler Maynard and Derrick Baskin).
Other captivating songs from the original score, including the calypso frolic "Under the Sea," and the dreamy "Kiss the Girl," are embellished by Stephen Mear’s okay but limited choreographic vocabulary. Seafood is unfortunately the dish du jour in the palace, courtesy of Chef Louis, as comically played by John Treacy Egan.
The theme of how a young woman learns to trust herself and follow her instincts in the shadow of an overprotective single parent will not go unnoticed by the many children who will undoubtedly visit this show. Hopefully they will take away with them more than the image of sea creatures rolling around in a Plexiglas world and the sight of all the t-shirts, CDs, and tchotchkes being sold in the lobby.
"The Little Mermaid," Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street. $51.50 to $121.50. 212-307-4747.