'Little Mermaid': On Broadway, Just A Fish Out of Water

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008

NEW YORK -- Disney's shimmering movie megahit for the kindergarten set, "The Little Mermaid," seemed a natural for Broadway, what with its endearing marine-world love story and all that cheerfully animated seafood, fluttering its fins to the steel-drum lilt of "Under the Sea."

Somewhere out there in the choppy foam, however, the creators of the new stage version that opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre let the compass slip overboard. In director Francesca Zambello's confused production -- a morass of mechanical characters, syrupy new songs and gaudily irrelevant set pieces -- all the warmth and charm of the film manages to get away.

The bloated, 2 1/2 -hour show -- an hour longer than the 1989 movie -- represents a low watermark for the Disney-on-Broadway franchise. "The Little Mermaid" is the sixth in a stage-musical line that began 14 years ago with the opening of "Beauty and the Beast." (A seventh, "King David," was a song cycle that made a cameo appearance on 42nd Street.)

An artistic peak was reached in Julie Taymor's resplendent "The Lion King" in 1997, but the subsequent shows -- "Aida," "Tarzan" and "Mary Poppins" -- have all been pallid or overproduced. ("The Lion King" might have left a lingering curse of high expectations.) "The Little Mermaid" is the most disappointing of all, partly because of the magnitude of the imaginative delights on screen. But also because, in the adding of so many unmemorable numbers and clunky turns of plot and even in the shamelessly borrowing from Taymor, this adaptation feels like such a cut-and-paste job.

Zambello's "Little Mermaid" lurches from song to song: The original score by composer Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman has been souped up with about a dozen new tunes, by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. (None is as good as the Menken-Ashman work in songs such as "Part of Your World" and "Kiss the Girl.") The Big Idea here has to do with how the actors propel themselves through the numbers. They're all on Heelys, those sneakers with the built-in wheels in their heels. The footwear allows them to glide across the stage, a clever solution to how to simulate the locomotion of underwater creatures.

Even here, though, "The Little Mermaid" is a victim of stolid planning. The activity ends up looking more like skating than it does like swimming -- just as this "Mermaid" ends up feeling less like a product meant for Broadway than for another sphere of entertainment: Disney on Ice.

Geared as it is to a 5-year-old's sensibility, the stage version creates a water world of flimsy pageantry: shiny surfaces, plastic images and ornate thingamajigs. Throughout the evening, a strange pair of sculpted poles with armatures are shoved on and off the stage. Sometimes, actors playing fish float on plates attached to the ends of the armature. The poles also show up as unflattering furnishings in the scenes at the castle of Prince Eric (Sean Palmer), the young aristocrat with whom Ariel, the little mermaid (Sierra Boggess), falls in love. A sun assembled by set designer George Tsypin, from what appear to be metallic triangles, swivels in these scenes to become a chandelier.

Tatiana Noginova's costumes range from the inept -- there's nothing to suggest crustacean in Tituss Burgess's getup as Sebastian the anxious crab -- to plain off-putting: The women of Eric's castle dress as if swallowing cotton balls were a fashion statement.

The talented Doug Wright (a Pulitzer winner for "I Am My Own Wife," no less) was recruited to contribute the script for the musical, which in general follows the outline of the film. Ariel, against the wishes of her royal father, looks for a way to become a member of the absolutely fabulous human race. She gets a chance after rescuing the drowning Eric and becoming a pawn in a plan by evil, tentacled Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott) to wrest control of the oceans from Ariel's father, King Triton (Norm Lewis).

The cramming in of so many new songs seems to have impeded Wright's efforts to create characters of any depth, or to resolve the plot mechanics in a manner that makes much sense. (Then again, it's questionable how much narrative logic the target, post-toddler audience requires.) Uncannily, Palmer and especially Boggess resemble their cartoon predecessors, and they're not asked for much more than that in the way of characterization.

Fine Broadway singer-actors such as Scott and Lewis have been marooned in impossible roles. Although both play characters at the top of the sea-world food chain, neither one can escape the impression of being ensnared in some kind of a trap.

A stagnant sensation extends to the conception of entire numbers. For the second act's "Kiss the Girl," Zambello seeks to conjure Taymor's "Circle of Life" by posing actors as various kinds of marine life, with some, in "Lion King"-style, wearing the essence of the animal on their heads. Imitation, in this instance, is the sincerest sign of desperation.

The Little Mermaid, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, book by Doug Wright. Directed by Francesa Zambello. Lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, John Shivers; projections, Sven Ortel; choreography, Stephen Mear; orchestrations, Danny Troob. With Jonathan Freeman, Eddie Korbich, Derrick Baskin, Tyler Maynard. About 2 1/2 hours. At Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St. Call 212-307-4100 or visit

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