Ariel. She wasn’t content being a mermaid, so she had to go up on land and mess things up for everyone. Disney. They weren’t content to leave a beloved cartoon classic intact, so they had to put it on Broadway and mess things up for everyone.
I recently attended a preview performance of Disney’s latest Broadway juggernaut, and when I walked out of the theater I was amazed that I wasn’t wandering out to Main Street at Disneyland. On the subway ride up to the theater, I prepared myself for a children’s musical but hoped that there would be moments of magic or humor for the adults in the audience. What the creative team put on stage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater is a 16 million dollar theme park show. It was the first time in my twelve years of theater going that I’ve bought into the mentality that Disney really is ruining Broadway.
A Saturday matinee at a Disney show almost guarantees an audience with a median age of seven. With ticket prices hitting the stratospheric $120 range, I assumed the ushers would hand over either an Ariel costume, or seven shots of whiskey, with the Playbill; neither was the case.
The only thing that greets the audience is a drop full of glow in the dark sea-creatures, reminiscent of stickers I had on my ceiling as a child. Only these probably cost a million dollars. There certainly is a lot of money on display as the show flies in and out of the wings, alternating between land and sea. Huge plates of plastic, the most expensive material on the planet, float together to form suggestive scenery made to resemble the underwater universe.
It becomes apparent relatively early in the show, that the design team can’t quite decide what it wants to do. Some costumes appear to be literal (like the Mermaids), while others are odd suggestions of the creatures they represent. There’s no cohesiveness to the hyper colored sets and costumes, which at times find the chorus dressed in humiliating outfits best suited for a Disney parade. Halfway through the first act, I almost expected a line of little girls to form, awaiting pictures with their favorite princess.
Any show Disney transplants to Broadway must undergo changes from the films the audience comes in expecting. There are additional songs, which are greeted less than enthusiastically, as the toddlers in the audience await “Part of Your World,” or “Under the Sea,” that are created to be the true showstoppers. For the adults in the audience, the creative team attempts to fashion a full-fledged Broadway musical where there shouldn’t be one. The paper thin plots of the films are revealed for what they truly are.
This show exists on land and sea, both of which are the lands of no character development. It doesn’t help that Ariel and Prince Eric wear wigs and costumes that keep them so closely associated with their cartoon counterparts. I was amazed they hadn’t surgically enlarged Sierra Boggess’ eyes, and constrained her waist to inhuman proportions.
The overwhelming feeling I was consumed with while watching the show was pity for the performers. While they give it their all, they also have glimmers in their eyes begging the adults for forgiveness at the absurd costumes they don throughout. The design seems so desperate to reach Julie Taymor levels of inventiveness that it tries nearly everything to pull out the stops; it usually falls flat. The concept of having the “swimming” effect created by putting the cast in “heelies” (sneakers with wheels on the heels) sounds more ridiculous than it looks, but that’s not to give the impression that it has any magic to it. Even with the movement created by the heelies the staging feels lethargic, at best. The actresses have been instructed to keep their arms moving to display an "underwater" floating. For the most part they just stand still while their arms undulate.
The only time where the show ever truly comes alive is when the goddess Sherie Rene Scott takes the stage as the sea-witch Ursula. Scott is quickly becoming one of the most versatile actresses working today. She has a voice that blasts to the rafters, and comedic timing that makes her both an accomplished character actress and a believable leading lady. Here she picks up the easiest paycheck of her career, appearing in about thirty minutes of the show. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it takes her more time to get ready than she spends on stage. Yet those moments she arrives, tentacles and all, are the best of the show. She makes the most effort (and is helped tremendously by her costume and wig) to distance herself from her cartoon counterpart. It helps that she doesn’t play it as an overweight octopus/drag queen like the movie. Instead, she brings sexiness to the role that adds unforeseen layers to her manipulations.
Perhaps most disappointingly, Ursula’s transformation story line is completely discarded. Instead of arriving on land, transformed into a vixen with the voice she stole from Ariel, she gets a messy storyline to wrap things up from her underwater den. This continues the trend of muddy storytelling that overwhelms the second act. There isn’t a single emotional string pulled by any of the characters on stage. The only moments that bring any hint of magic are a few brief special effects during Prince Eric’s shipwreck and Ariel’s transformation to a human.
The rest of the cast has their moments. Boggess has pipes of steel, as does Tituss Burgess (as Sebastian.) Choosing Sean Palmer to play Prince Eric was a rather peculiar choice, because while he sings decently, it’s clear he is primarily a dancer. Norm Lewis gets some of the most absurd book scenes, and is costumed distractingly shirtless and glittered like a go-go dancer at a gay bar. This is a common make-up choice, as blue glitter lipstick seems to be as common for the boys in the show as a dance belt.
If only that glittery pucker could add some excitement to the proceedings, I wouldn’t have been more focused on my candy than the stage. You know I’m bored when I actually decide to eat in my seat, a new trend in theater that disgusts me. Now I’m left thinking that I paid buckets of money for this show and all I got was a lousy souvenir cup.