Tacoma Musical Playhouse brings its 23rd season to a close with a bright and bubbly, beautifully-performed production of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.” Directed and choreographed by Jon Douglas Rake, the TMP production combines superb performances, eye-catching costumes and marvelous stage effects to create a show that is visually dazzling, musically delicious and heartwarming.
Say what you will about Disney, the entertainment company knows all about how to impact an audience with just the right mix of humor, suspense and a grand, cathartic crescendo at the end. Unless you’re a barnacle-encrusted cynic or are so sophisticated that you’ve somehow managed to mummify your heart, the Disney-crafted characters, story and music always get through. You can’t help but be moved by the Disney formula. It’s almost a biological reflex – provided that the theatrical troupe performing the musical can pull it off reasonably well.
On that score, TMP comes through with flying colors. The performers in this production are so good that they carry the audience into their magical, underwater kingdom with ease. You can lay back on a bubble and let the story wash over you. The costumes and effects are so dazzling, the music so strong and the dance numbers so adroit that the show bobs swiftly along. The audience is left to drift happily along on its magical tide.
Starring as Ariel, the Little Mermaid herself, Cherisse Martinelli is flawless, with a vocal delivery that flows like velvety cream. Her interaction with the other characters never falters and she shoots humorous expressions at the audience at just the right moments of the show.
Ariel’s love interest, Prince Eric, is played by Colin Briskey, whose rich, mahogany timbres are sure-footed and strong.
Nancy Hebert Bach is brassy and electric as the delightfully sinister villain Ursula, the sea witch. Sporting a hairdo piled up like the Tower of Babel and twirling a skirt of tentacles, she belts out her solos with a sultry swagger.
It is a pleasure to simply sit back and enjoy Isaiah Parker’s performance as Sebastian, a crimson crab who is the court composer for King Triton. Done up in 18th century courtly finery – including the gentleman’s wig – Sebastian functions also as the Ariel’s overwhelmed tutor and guardian.
In addition to Parker’s lively antics, more comedy is provided by Jake Atwood as Scuttle, the gawky seagull whose discombobulations and mash-ups of vocabulary make one nostalgic for the George W. Bush administration. Further laughs are cooked up by the wild and crazy Chef Louis (Erik Furuheim). Furuheim’s high-octane seafood cooking demo is an audience favorite.
Another crowd favorite is William Hebert, who plays Flounder, a little fish that is enamored with the lovely Ariel and is always gliding around her when she is under the sea.
Ursula’s two henchmen, moray eels Flotsam (Derek Mesford) and Jetsam (Josh Anderman), are also fitted with skates so that they can slink about and do the villains bidding. Here, they have the appearance of punk rock, deep-sea lizards that function as an extension of Ursula’s malevolence.
John Miller, a prolific local actor is stalwart in every role he plays. In this case, he is Grimsby, the courtier whose task is to help young Prince Eric select a suitable princess to become queen.
Johnny Neidlinger is a great fit for the role of King Triton, Ariel’s father, the powerful, towering ruler of the kingdom of the sea. In addition to governing his expansive realm, he is the father of seven lovely mermaid daughters, the youngest of whom is Ariel, who is infatuated with earthbound humans whom the king blames for the death of his queen.
The ensemble cast leavens the whole affair in a multitude of ways. There are the fishy attendants in the underwater realms. There are dancing jellyfish, beautiful mermaids that sing and dance, trusty sailors, zany chefs, fancy courtiers, and even a flock of tap-dancing seagulls.
In addition to the cast and the ensemble members, Jocelyne Fowler’s sumptuous, colorful costumes and John Chenault’s lighting effects make for any number of dazzling visual tableaux and musical highs. There is a haunting quartet in which Ariel is in bed, Prince Eric is on a seaside rock, Sebastian is on the beach and Triton is in the sea, and each expresses his/her thoughts and concerns in a beautifully interwoven sonic tapestry.
It would not be a Disney product without the triumph of the good, the resolution of all conflicts and a giant, glamorous, glittering tidal wave of cathartic emotionalism at the end. While the audience witnessed the royal wedding ceremony, little girls in the crowd, many wearing the plastic tiaras on sale in the lobby (as part of a fundraiser), turned to their parents with joy-lit faces as the musical play reached its happy conclusion. I know of at least one adult that wiped a tear from his eye as well.
While the Disney telling of the Hans Christian Anderson story is true to the original in a number of respects, it is nevertheless much changed. The Disney version makes the story into something of a middle American coming of age tale with conflict between a willful teenager and her parent. In the Anderson version, the mermaid heroine had to make considerably more of a sacrifice to obtain legs and feet to walk on land. Every step that she took caused pain – as if her feet were being cut with knives. Further, she did not temporarily lose her voice, but instead had her tongue cut off permanently. Anderson’s version of a “happy ending” was somewhat more nuanced that the Disney version as well, but you’ll have to research that for yourselves.
“Disney’s The Little Mermaid” is light-hearted, pretty and well-calibrated to elicit an emotional response. It makes for a fun, safe evening of live theatre that the entire family can enjoy to the full. It is a great ending to the TMP season of main stage shows. It’s a razzle-dazzle, magical plunge down into a fantasy kingdom under the sea. It hums on cylinders: the music is rich, the actors are on key, the costumes provide continual visual stimulation and the story is enchanting.
“Disney’s The Little Mermaid” runs through July 30. For further information visit tmp.org.