Review: The Little Mermaid

Jared Blount, Emily Paige Cleek, and Emily Pace in The Little Mermaid          Photo by Joshua McGowen

By Larry Laneer
April ­­­17, 2018

Musical theater swings between substance and spectacle. You rarely see both in one show. With neither substance nor spectacle, Pollard Theatre Company’s production of The Little Mermaid risks sailing right into the rocks.

The show is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story and the 1989 Disney animated film. Disney Theatrical Productions staged the original musical, and the touring version played here last fall. The sole purpose for this musical’s existence is to present a great spectacle, including mermaids and other sea creatures “swimming” by means of flying apparatus above the stage and other effects.

The pop score (Alan Menken, music; Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, lyrics) has its charms, and the book (Doug Wright) teems with puns that will delight any fifth grader.

Pollard has “reimagined” the show for its compact theater and perhaps more limited budget than what was available to Disney Theatrical. Pollard has had great success reimagining big, glitzy musicals for a chamber-like staging, last season’s The Producers, for instance.

The problem is Little Mermaid isn’t a good show for a Pollard reimagining. A Disneyfied fairy tale about a mermaid who longs to trade her fins for legs and marry the handsome prince doesn’t offer as much substance as even a light comedy like The Producers.

The co-directors W. Jerome Stevenson and Timothy Stewart must have thought seasoned theatergoers would be skeptical about the company presenting Little Mermaid. They first make their case for the production in a program note. Then, before the show starts, the cast in street clothes enters through the house trying to psych up the audience. They especially target children, who were plentiful at the reviewed performance. “Are you here to see the Little Mermaid,” an ensemble member exclaimed superfluously to some little girls. “Yaaaaaaay!” They encourage us to cheer the hero and boo the villain. Or villainess, in this case.

Next, gathering on stage, the cast demonstrates the magic of theater. How, for example, two actors stretching a rope into a vertical rectangle can create a “door,” which someone pantomimes opening and walking through and then forgetting to “open” when he exits, fake bumping his noggin. “Make-believe is what actors and audiences do,” the actor playing the Little Mermaid says encouragingly. Well, you can’t argue with that.

Then, the music starts, and off we go to Poseidon’s realm. But what’s Pollard to do next? It’s hard to tell if they are staging a satirical stab at glitzy musicals or a trying to stage a glitzy show on a budget. Either way, the staging doesn’t demand much make-believe on the audience’s part. Those pre-curtain street clothes are a prelude the costumes by Michael James. Most of the costumes look like they came from a retail costume store (those awful fake boots Prince Eric wears over black shoes) or off the rack at a dollar store.

The same can be said about the props, and this show employs many. In the delightful to the point of being foolproof “Under the Sea,” the props depicting sea life look like what might be bought or homemade for a PTA talent show.

Stevenson also did the scenic design, and it’s a step up from the costumes and props. Fully realized, solid-looking backdrops depict lairs of King Triton and the evil squid, Ursula. Shimmering blue cloths stretched across the stage and kept in constant motion serve as the ocean.

The show features some engaging performances in supporting roles. It’s a treat to see Doug Ford as Scuttle the seagull. Cory Fields makes a menacing Ursula. Kaleb Bruza has a comical, if brief, scene as Chef Louis in “Les Poissons.” As Sebastian the crab, Brandon Stalling benefits from having the best songs.

The leads are uneven. Emily Paige Cleek is appealing as Ariel, the lovesick mermaid. The handsome Griffin Maxwell (new to me) is fine as Prince Eric as long as he’s singing.

Theatergoers appreciate Pollard’s reimagining shows and giving us a fresh look at familiar or rarely seen work. In this case, one wishes they were reimagining a better show. This Little Mermaid founders at sea.

The Little Mermaid by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater (lyrics), and Doug Wright (book)
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through May 5
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

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