‘The Little Mermaid’: First act flounders, but talent bubbles to the surface

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is one of the most celebrated and loved animated films in history, so it was only a matter of time before it made its way to the Broadway Stage. Now, Broadway Across America has brought the Broadway hit to Austin, along with everyone’s favorite characters, scenes, and song. It also brings with it new story lines and songs, with diminishing returns, some of which turn out to be home runs, and some don’t quite rise to reach classic status.

Where the piece falls apartment, more than anything is on the production side of things. Compared to the spectacle of the other Disney musicals, “The Little Mermaid” falls short, especially in its first half. Numbers like “Under the Sea”, the show’s most well-known number, could be much more powerful if given the same treatment as the Lion King’s “Circle of Life”, but as it’s presented on stage, it lacks a certain energy or verve. It doesn’t help that “The Little Mermaid” is the one of the vibrant and lively of Disney’s creations, which has the added limitation of taking place mostly under the water, but one can’t help but think steps could have been taken to make the numbers more energetic or original. It’s endemic of most the plays problems, as scenes with take place against blank backgrounds, when they could have been given much more dynamic environments.

The play is at its best when its characters are in motion, during the various dancing moments, and in particular swimming scenes, and no performer is more in touch with their body than Allison Wood as Ariel. Graceful, lithe, and compact, each movement she makes speaks to her character, with each little swirl, each sway of her hips or flutter of her feet creating meaning and purpose. Her crystal-clear voice also helps to sell her childish innocence, as do her wide, expressive eyes. It all comes together to create one of the most memorable characters in the piece.

Though its romantic leads do a fine job, the real star of this show s Melvin Abston as Sebastian. Playing the jittery, but still caring confidante, he brings an exuberance to the role that’s practically contagious. Vocally, he also carries his songs well, his textured baritone becoming the best parts of numbers like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”, which lose steam on the production side of things. The stage always becomes a little brighter when he’s on stage, and he saves many moments that simply wouldn’t stand without the power of his performance.

There’s plenty to love in Broadway Across America’s “The Little Mermaid”, especially for anyone who comes with their childlike whimsy intact and their nostalgia goggles firmly planted. In particular, several of the performances are truly accomplished, especially that of our leads and Melvin Abston as Sebastian. However, the play fails to rise to the level of Broadway spectacle present in productions like “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”, and makes lazy choices in many sections. In the end, it’s not quite worth it for the investment, though classic Disney fans will find plenty to love.

Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars

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