The Little Mermaid isn’t Disney’s best musical, but the cast and crew make MTW’s production a ton of fun

Photo by Brett Beiner

I have always been a huge Disney fan. As a child, I loved the animated classics, and Mary Poppins is still one of my all-time favorite movies. Like everyone else, though, I was aware of the sagging quality of the studio’s animated films in the 70s and 80s. So, like everyone else, I was left absolutely marveling at 1989’s The Little Mermaid, the movie that kick-started the second age of Disney that is still going strong today (though it could be argued that the current version of Disney is at least a third age). The sweet, poignant tale, with its lively animation, its humor, and wonderful Howard Ashman/Alan Menken score, made my 32-year-old self a Disney lover all over again.

Today, of course, Disney is the Goliath of studios, hungrily consuming both LucasFilm and Marvel as well as churning out megahit after megahit with its animation and Pixar brands…not to mention Disney+. But the studio has not forgotten its seminal works even while creating new gems like Frozen or Encanto. In fact, it seems determined to reimagine as many of them as possible both as live-action movies and as Broadway musicals, and The Little Mermaid, the film that restarted everything, is no exception. The live-action movie is due next year, but for now, we have the musical play, which Music Theatre Works just opened at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

I do have a few issues, not necessarily with this production but with the show itself, which isn’t really a perfect fit for a live stage. I’ll get to those in a bit. It’s a very cute show and has many wonderful moments (“Kiss The Girl” and “Under the Sea” stand out for me), even though the added songs (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) are, unfortunately, mostly unmemorable. What makes this production work is the dedication and talent of the people who made it happen.

Joselle Reyes is Ariel, the mermaid who wants to walk on land so much that she is willing to trade away her gorgeous voice for the opportunity. Reyes’ performance anchors the show. She is an instantly likable actress and plays all of the aspects of Ariel—defiant, independent, wishful, vulnerable, determined—beautifully. From the opening of the play, which finds her wrapped in a shimmering fabric drop at center stage singing a shortened version of one of those new numbers—”The World Above”— in the incredible voice that is pretty much a requirement for the role, she makes us root for her character’s success. (She is helped by the fact that the musical’s Doug Wright-penned book tones down the “I want this man” rationale for her decisions in favor of an “I don’t fit in the box I’ve been stuck in” version that feels perfect for Pride month.)

The rest of the cast is just as wonderful. Caroline Lyell’s stage presence and boldly belting voice make Ursula the Sea Witch—here reinvented as Triton’s sister—come alive in all of her delicious evilness. The direction—by Stacey Flaster and Joshua Castille—allows her to become a part of almost every scene, lurking in the background and manipulating what happens. Aided by her electric eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam (played by Gus Franchere and Anakin Jave White), who are devilishly sly—and slimy—even by themselves, she manages to put Ariel in position to sacrifice that lovely voice in order to become human. Lyell’s pure, heartfelt, supervillain-evil cackling at achieving that end is a strong declaration that Ursula has no redeemable character remaining, if she ever did. And Lyell gets more than just the perfectly handled “Poor Unfortunate Souls” to show off with. Sadly, the song “I Want the Good Times Back” (despite what it says in the program) has been replaced with the biographical “Daddy’s Little Girl,” as it was after the show left Broadway. The song is a successful attempt to provide context for the sea witch’s evil, but it lacks the powerful darkness and dedication to the joys of being evil of its predecessor even as it shows off Ursula as the demon she has always been.

Wesly Anthony Clergé is perfect as Sebastian, the crab composer who is tasked by Triton (the big-voiced Thomas E. Squires) to watch over his youngest daughter. He is, of course, the one who leads both of the show’s aforementioned iconic ensemble dance numbers, here beautifully choreographed by Flaster and Matthew Weidenbener (up to the point where both of them end in the rather lackluster move of having him upstage with his back turned while Ariel sneaks off).

Other characters are allowed their own opportunities to let us see who they really are. Prince Eric is a much more important figure in the musical than in the film, and we get major glimpses into his mind through added songs like “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer,” which make him feel more worthy of Ariel because we know he is more than a hunk on a ship: he is a good man who will honor her desires. Korey White is solid and tender as the Prince’s mentor/surrogate father Grimsby. The silly, malaprop-prone seagull Scuttle is performed in all his goofball glory by Clayton Cross, who makes the most of his own new numbers, “Human Stuff” and “Positoovity.” Flounder, who in the movie is Ariel’s pal and constant companion, here is shown as someone who would like to be more than that. He is played energetically and enthusiastically by young actress Eloise Mulliken, who takes the lead in a song with Triton’s other daughters in which they all realize that “She’s In Love”… and Flounder comes to grips with the fact that it is not the little fish who is the object of her desire.

Speaking of those other sisters, “She’s In Love” is much more of a showpiece for them than the by-the-numbers presentation of “Daughters of Triton,” though they take tremendous advantage of both opportunities to define themselves both as an ensemble and as individual mermaids. Of them all, though, the one who continually catches the eye is Atina, played by Meredith Aleigha Wells, who uses her wheelchair inventively in her dance moves as she whirls and twists her way around the stage.

It was a nice production (other than some sound issues that I’m sure were driving the tech people mad), and the audience—especially all the little kids in attendance—enjoyed it. The set (designed by Shane Cinal) is fairly simple, but with Andrew Meyers’ lighting effects added, it manages to place us in Eric’s ship, on land, in his castle, and (of course) “under the sea.” Truly, though, Rachel M. Sypniewski’s costumes and Maria “Mimi” Compton’s make-up design are the most magical tech elements here. Flotsam and Jetsam ooze all over the stage wearing skin-tight costumes lighted along one side to show off their “electricity.” The mermaids may not have tails, but their costumes make it so we hardly notice that (which is rather important in a play about one of them gaining legs). Scuttle is created partially by Cross’s genius and partially through beautiful use of makeup and feathers. Sebastian’s all red costume sets the crab apart from everyone else on stage. Ursula and her octopus tentacles are as menacing as you’d want them to be. And for Flounder…the little fish is bright blues and yellows from head to foot and just a joy to watch (though Mulliken’s energy may have something to do with that as well).

Ultimately, though, the show itself let me down. I had never seen it onstage before, and now I understand why it was never the enormous Broadway behemoth that The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Frozen have been. Far more than those others, The Little Mermaid‘s plot depends upon things that are non-replicable onstage. Without Ursula’s “garden” of shrunken, abused, “unfortunate” souls, the stakes are not high enough. Just binding Ariel or Triton is not enough. Without the terrifying ending, with its giant sea witch and the sudden hurricane/whirlpool threatening the ship, the only thing it can do is kill her off (too abruptly) and then make a big production of the marriage. That’s nice, of course, and sweet, but rather a let-down (for the adults in the audience, if not for the children, who watched in raptured joy throughout).

In all, it is easy to recommend this production, but it’s still a flawed show and not really up to Disney standards…none of which will really matter to its intended audience, which is embodied by the two little girls to my right who were all dressed up in light-up princess costumes. The Little Mermaid runs through June 26. Tickets are available through Music Theatre Works. Note: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts no longer requires masks, though it “recommends” them. The (surprisingly light) opening night crowd seemed pretty evenly divided. Use your own judgment about bringing unvaccinated children to the show.

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