Since becoming a parent, I have been known to quip that you only really appreciate a Disney film after your 160th viewing. And, like one of the company’s trademark movies, I’m being deceptively blithe in saying so. My accidental scholarship of the oeuvre has made me realize that the more you watch a work sprung from founder Walt Disney’s exacting vision, the more you get under the hood to spot the finely calibrated mechanics synthesizing technological innovation, artistry, psychology and, yes, the deepest longings of the heart.
Think about it. In more than a few Disney works, there are lost mothers (Bambi, Snow White, Dumbo, Cinderella, and, yes, The Little Mermaid) and found personal callings (Frozen, Moana, Tangled, Brave, and, again, The Little Mermaid.) If you think I’ve gone altogether wonky on Walt, I’d recommend you fire up Walt Disney, the excellent documentary series on PBS that does much to reveal the man behind the mouse. As narrator Oliver Platt offers via voiceover, Disney films “tackle the sweep of the human condition with all the light and shadow of real life.”
It’s no stretch that Charleston Stage would launch its 40th anniversary season with Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the fantastical, fin-friendly stage musical originally spun from Disney Theatrical in 2007 to run on Broadway. After all, it encapsulates many of Charleston Stage’s hallmark attributes: children’s theater starring performers of all ages; production values that stand up to the demands of a Broadway show; and a celebration of personal expression that engages us all.
For those Mermaid heads among you — and judging from the surprising swell of mega-tatted twenty-somethings in the audience, there are a few — the stage musical departs in subtle but noteworthy ways. Featuring music and lyrics based mainly on the hits from the 1989 film (Think “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World”), the rejiggered-for-Broadway version adds some other songs, while also tinkering with some of the film’s plot points, some for the better, and some otherwise.
The show’s book (created by the Pulitzer- and Tony-toting Doug Wright) folds in intel gleaned from early notes on the film, like the fact that King Triton and the sea witch Ursula are brother and sister, while also basing it on the original Hans Christian Andersen story. The book expands Flounder’s guppy-crush on Ariel, comically playing up his jealous vexation in the song “She’s in Love”; gives Prince Eric a penchant for the sea; and renders virtuosic the malapropisms of Scuttle, who goes beyond dinglehopper (his word for hairbrush for the uninitiated) with a cacophony of clever verbal concoctions — and gets his own tap number, “Positoovity.”
My mission was to assess whether the jubilant, Technicolor new production directed by Marybeth Clark delivers the Magic Kingdom’s special sauce of entertainment, eye candy and age-transcendent emotional resonance. I took the plunge at a Sunday matinee, with family members from ages four to seventy-four in tow. My toddler Beatrice, who I named contributing reviewer, enthusiastically gave her thumbs-up — and her rapt composure during much of the show served as added proof. Similarly, my in-laws, Disney die-hards both, were all in.
I agree. The show indeed worked its intended magic, first by whipping up sparkle and spectacle through color-saturated, shimmering costumes; a vibrantly sea-blue set; outsize handheld sea creatures; and the none-too-shabby feats of the Dock Street Theatre’s fly system. All this came to vivid life thanks to some standout performances and ebullient dance numbers. And, while I can’t say that the theater’s intimate space worked optimally for all the numbers, there were more than a few showstoppers.
As Ariel, Bonny Baker performs, well, swimmingly. Her ever-so-lovely voice perfectly captures the plaintive, ascending strains of ah-ah-ah meant to grip the heart of Prince Eric — and perhaps unlock our own yearning inner voices. “I like Ariel’s red hair,” Beatrice added. I would also argue that Baker made most effective, fluid use of the fly system, convincingly undulating upward from her watery depths.
On this point, Beatrice disagrees. “I liked it when Ursula had the strings on her that made her look bigger,” she offered, referring to a big betentacled moment in the second act. From there, we parsed how Beatrice’s utter dislike of Ursula was testament to the acting chops of Andrea Rausch, who brought captivating menace and a good dollop of sea salt to the role. Jairus B. McClanahan was a richly-timbred, warmly comic Sebastian. Beatrice declared her favorite as Flounder, played with boyish charm and verve by Sullivan Eppes.
There is pleasure aplenty in rousing, high-flying numbers like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” which burst off the stage like an antic, deeply populated tropical fishbowl. And then there’s also the heart of the matter, that oh-so-essential part of the Disney proposition. The quartet “If Only” lays bare the interior life of the four main characters — thus bringing out of the shadows and into light our own submerged hopes, and the dreams we can’t perhaps yet declare.
After all, that’s the ineffable part of a Disney production. In the PBS series, Ron Suskind comments on how audiences come to be so moved by one, observing,”They cross the barrier between the life they lived and the internal world that lives in all of us, and Disney provides the passage. And it ain’t kid stuff.” True, I would likely not put this up as my most shining example of Walt’s magic made for stage. However, I’m confident you’ll see that magic glimmer abundantly at the Dock Street, amid all the gorgeous spirit and splash.