Tuesday, February 5, 2008


The Little Mermaid
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Starring Sierra Boggess, Sherie Rene Scott, Sean Palmer, Norm Lewis, Titus Burgess

Performances began November 3, 2007
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
205 West 46th Street

Disney’s well is running dry, from the evidence of its latest classic-movie-to-stage-musical. The Little Mermaid is a soggy mess, with the latest in technology at the service of an unimaginative, dull interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale via the 1988 movie that began Disney’s animated film renaissance.

The beguiling story of Ariel -- a young mermaid who's a little too interested in things human, especially that handsome young prince -- is no longer a sweet romance with comic relief but a woefully unsatisfying monster unable to decide whether or not it should be a spoof.

In the world of opera, director Francesca Zambello, has done work both good (War and Peace in Paris) and bad (Les Troyens at the Met), so it's not surprising that her first stab at a Broadway musical is a schizophrenic affair. She has a good sense of space when the stage isn’t overwhelmed by undersea debris; the rest of the time, she’s lost, and the actors simply crowd around each other, seemingly unsure of what’s coming next.

Zambello also has an astute sense of movement and, together with choreographer Stephen Mear, she creates a few pleasing moments -- mostly when Ariel or Sebastian, the crab charged by King Triton to watch over his daughter, are front and center. But defeat comes at the hands of George Tsypin, whose sets fail at some sort of wink-wink/serious balancing act, from the prince’s ship and the shore on which he washes up to Ariel’s private, underwater room filled with human bric-a-brac. Also to blame is costume designer Tatiana Noginova, who never ably treads the fine line between camp and coherence. For example, Sebastian looks more like a lobster (maybe) than a crab.

The actors give it the old college try. Sierra Boggess, an adorably asexual Ariel, is perfect for a family show like this, even with much of her body bared and her belly ring gleaming under the lights. Tituss Burgess’s Sebastian is the obvious audience favorite; as in the movie, this character is given the best lines. Sherie Rene Scott, who plays the evil sea witch Ursula, has a powerhouse voice to go with her magnetic stage presence, although the fact that she sings so well makes Ursula’s wanting Ariel’s angelic voice a moot point.

The movie’s blandly pleasant songs, by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, are interspersed with a bunch of indistinguishable new ones by Menken and Glenn Slater. The result is a musical that may please kids and their parents, but not the rest of us.

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